The Gillings School responds to coronavirus.

April 17, 2020

The challenge that COVID-19 poses across the globe epitomizes the importance of public health education and research. At the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, students, alumni and faculty from across disciplines are working tirelessly to put learning into action in the face of a global health crisis.

Online MPH student balances work with vulnerable communities and training as a public health service officer

After completing her Doctor of Pharmacy degree at UNC-Chapel Hill, Jeannie Hong began working as a civilian pharmacist at an Indian Health Service (IHS) hospital for the Native Americans and Alaska Natives on a reservation in Arizona. While in practice, she found that some of her colleagues were United States Public Health Service (PHS) officers who exemplified how to be a public health servant beyond their primary training, and this drove her to become a PHS officer herself.

As she learned more about the public health realm, she became attracted to the field of epidemiology and wanted to invest her time and efforts in pursuing an advanced degree in this field. Because she was already familiar with the quality of education at UNC and at the Gillings School, she enrolled in the online MPH@UNC program and is currently pursuing her Master of Public Health (MPH) degree with a concentration in leadership in practice.

While her day job involves working as a rheumatology specialty pharmacist, her role as a PHS officer-pharmacist allows her access to courses and training developed by colleagues at other agencies within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, including courses on COVID-19 and emergency preparedness.

Many of Hong’s patients at the IHS hospital have autoimmune conditions such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis. The recent media coverage surrounding hydroxychloroquine’s potential in COVID-19 treatment has impacted its accessibility for her patients who need the medication to manage their autoimmune conditions. This has forced Hong and her colleagues to refocus care strategies in the face of drug shortages and patient anxiety in order to meet the most critical needs while helping the greatest number of patients. Much of Hong’s work has been dedicated to ensuring that her patients continue to balance the risks for COVID-19 with the benefits of their medications.

Native Americans and Alaska Natives suffer from health disparities due to various social determinants for health and multiple chronic conditions with limited access to care. The COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on many in this community – such as the Navajo Nation – has been similarly disproportionate. While Hong understands the challenges involved, she also feels grateful to have an opportunity to protect one of the most vulnerable populations in the U.S.

Nutrition graduate student continues homeless outreach in an era of social distancing

Students with the non-profit Hearts for the Homeless International (H4H) may not be able to perform the direct services they have been offering to homeless shelters in Orange County – like health screenings and education during dinner services at food shares – but that hasn’t stopped them from finding creative ways to serve the community in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kayla Ferro, an MPH student training to become a registered dietician, is co-founder and chief financial officer of the UNC chapter of H4H. She has played a significant role in establishing the first chapter of the nonprofit during her undergraduate studies at the University of Central Florida, and when she came to North Carolina to pursue her master’s degree, she helped found a chapter at UNC that has quickly grown to become one of the largest in the organization.

She has been involved in creating partnerships with community organizations to offer health care services to people experiencing homelessness. Now, in this time of social distancing, she is also leading an effort to continue H4H’s mission by collecting sanitary supplies and materials to create homemade masks.

“We have these stay-at-home orders, but a lot of these people, they don’t have a safe home to quarantine in,” Ferro recently told the Daily Tar Heel. “They are out on the street, they’re going through the same stresses and uncertainties that we are, but they don’t have that stable home.”

During the pandemic, the UNC H4H chapter is actively distributing information on best hygiene practices in packets with soap and water as part of an effort to educate local homeless populations about the pandemic. Ferro and fellow nutrition student Sarah Ondrish are helping to make and package all of the soap kits. Elizabeth Senter, another MPH student, plans to help those experiencing homelessness file for the new federal stimulus package by helping them fill out the necessary forms at the local Inter-Faith Council community house.

The organization is also exploring the best way to introduce a new prototype for a hand-washing sink station that would allow people experiencing homelessness to disinfect themselves before visiting shelters for meals or other services.

Learn more about Kayla Ferro and her work with H4H in’s recent interview with her for their Hometown Hero series.

Health behavior alumnus collaborates on Nevada’s rapid response plan to aid housebound elders

COVID-19 disproportionately affects the health of the aging population. Estimated mortality rates are elevated for those age 50 and older, and mortality rates could reach as high as 25% for people 80 years and older. This means that all older adults must stay home for the foreseeable future, and this presents a unique set of challenges for meeting their life-sustaining and urgent physical, social and emotional needs.

As part of Nevada’s Aging Services Network, health behavior alumnus Peter Reed (MPH ‘99, PhD ’04, director of the Sanford Center for Aging and professor of community health sciences at the University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine) collaborated on a resource report for state and local aging service providers called the “Nevada COVID-19 Aging Network (NV CAN) Rapid Response Plan.”

The resource report is the product of a coordinated effort to integrate existing support activities for aging populations and offer new support services to ensure that all elder Nevadans remain safely in their homes while receiving necessary daily essentials, social support and telehealth services. The plan aims to achieve this by distributing credible information resources, as well as using volunteers to connect with elders via telephone and internet to check on basic health needs and engage them in meaningful social interactions. The plain also leverages telemedicine to deliver necessary health care services and community organizations to provide daily necessities such as groceries, medication, transportation and more.

Reed is hopeful that the NV CAN response plan can serve as an example for other states and local communities to glean ideas and consider possibilities for immediate mobilization of any available aging services.

Information on the NV CAN plan, along with other COVID-19 resources for professionals in aging and elder services, can be found on the University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine’s website.

Read the Nevada Health Response’s press release: Aging and Disability Services Division Nevada COVID-19 Aging Network rapid response announced.

See more general information about COVID-19 at the Gillings School’s Coronavirus Information Portal.

Read more about how Gillings students and alumni are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic in our previous feature.

Find a roundup of all our experts’ coronavirus-related media outreach in this Twitter moment.

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