The Gillings Community Responds to COVID-19: Public Health Advocacy Amidst a Pandemic

The Gillings School responds to coronavirus.

June 15, 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 Master of Public Health student brings public health perspective to COVID-19 response team in Rockland County

Jenna Nazario

Jenna Nazario

Graduate student Jenna Nazario originally aspired to become a dental hygienist, but it was in her first public health course that she first gained a broader awareness of health inequities and how socioeconomic status, zip code, race and ethnicity play a role in the oral health disparities many people experience. Getting the chance to view people through a lens beyond their dental conditions was the “lightning bolt” moment that drove her to pursue a path in public health.

Now Nazario is pursuing her Master of Public Health degree in Leadership in Practice through the online MPH@UNC program.

Health equity, equality and human rights became the foundation for Nazario’s choice in practicum. In working with New York’s Human Rights Commission, she gained firsthand exposure to many of the challenges and inequities faced by the community that contributed to poor physical and mental health outcomes. Through her practicum, she made connections with local leaders and planned to continue her time at the Commission to further promote health equity and mental health resources.

Toward the end of her practicum, Nazario’s home county of Rockland County became one of the largest hot spots of COVID-19. As part of a recovery initiative, the county executive and chief of staff created a task force to restart economic development and growth. Because the task force understood that the mental and emotional outcomes of the pandemic could be just as devastating as any physical consequences, a key part of the initiative made the health and wellbeing of returning employees and consumers a priority as well. Knowing Nazario from her work with the Human Rights Commission, the task force brought her on as the social justice and health equity advisor in order to promote the development of change processes that would achieve sustainable economic and emotional growth for the Rockland County community.

Working alongside the county executive, the chief of staff, the commissioner of economic development, community leaders and aids to the governor, Nazario – the only woman on the team – now provides guidance on the public and mental health perspective when addressing the 4P’s of reopening: personnel, physical infrastructure, process and preparedness.

“Right now, I am in charge of coordinating and representing the many voices and organizations within the county to make sure the communities hit the hardest are heard and their mental health and overall healthcare concerns are addressed,” she explained. “My role is to ensure proper mitigation strategies are being acknowledged and understood and that employees and community members feel healthy and safe when returning to their new ‘normal’.”

Nazario believes one of her biggest challenges has been in helping many of the task force’s stakeholders understand the larger picture of public health. Many social determinants of health – such as socioeconomic status, the built environment and access to care – have contributed to the poor health outcomes in Rockland County due to the pandemic. Having discussions about those social determinants has been difficult when many stakeholders hold an intense focus on reopening the economy.

“I see a great need to acknowledge the collective impact public health can have with the economic agenda,” Nazario said. “What politicians, economic advisors, community organizations and businesses often don’t realize is that they all serve as public health leaders. We in our own ways have the same agenda, striving to ensure opportunity, success, and sustainability for the people.”

Through patience and persistence, Nazario believes she has found her voice. Her efforts have helped the task force understand their own lived experiences as individual stakeholders, as well as those of the populations they are committed to serving.

In the wake of COVID-19, Nazario sees the need for governments across the country to adapt collaborative and comprehensive public health response strategies at the local, state and federal levels. These strategies should include more transparency and should engage in efforts to foster more relationships with the communities they serve.

“The light at the end of this horrific pandemic can be that we all better understand the various levels of the socioecological framework that may be factoring into the failure of certain policy or programs, understand why some populations are more at risk than others, create a common literacy to further engage in dialogue and become more culturally competent to the lived experiences of the people,” she said. “I truly believe that public health professionals have an incredible vantage point when it comes to promoting the health and overall wellbeing of the population. We can serve as a conduit for a better quality of care throughout all sectors to improve better health outcomes.”

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.

Contact the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health communications team at

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