This is not my first epidemic. Indeed, it was in the early days of HIV/AIDS, in a series of life-changing circumstances, that I was inspired to leave a planned career as bench scientist in cell physiology and embrace the study of public health. Partially motivated by tensions between the government and communities seeking answers to and urgent treatments for a devastating disease, and partially motivated by my growing interest in the social interplay of behavior and virus, public health became my “cause,” and I have never looked back.
There is no doubt that life as we know it has changed drastically in the last year. For most of us, COVID-19 will be one of the most impactful events of our life. After this sobering year, we will never again take healthcare providers and first responders for granted. We will forever honor those who have suffered and died. But I also promise that there will come a day when we’ll look back and talk about the year we all gained weight, endured toilet paper shortages, held virtual cocktail parties and made every recipe in the cookbook. We will even smile as we remember some of the more bizarre Zoom backgrounds and laugh as we recall the Zoom interruptions by children, animals and partners during the most critical of meetings.
“There is no doubt that life as we know it has changed drastically in the last year. For most of us, COVID-19 will be one of the most impactful events of our life.”
For me, COVID will also be remembered as part of what seems like the longest year, which started with my move to UCI to lead the transition of public health from program to school. This transported me from my hometown of New York City, where I had lived for over 50 years, to Southern California. After a brief introduction to the warm California sun, the fierce Santa Ana winds and the beautiful Pacific Coast Highway, COVID hit, and public health at UCI began its response to an emerging pandemic at the university, in partnership with the community and the Orange County Health Care Agency.
In March, we “flattened the curve” in California and avoided a surge in early days with limited treatment options. Sadly, we watched as racial, ethnic and economic disparities emerged in morbidity and mortality. And despite the ebb and flow of this virus, not a day has gone by since last January when we have not been confronted by a new COVID challenge.
During an ebb in COVID cases in O.C., and with the greatest of care, my husband and I drove across the country to move out of our New York residence and into our University Hills home. It was exhilarating to be released from 14-hour Zoom days and the repetitive activities of a life basically sheltering in place. I relished the freedom of driving 12-hour days and having a picnic on the side of the road. I had forgotten the vast space and startling beauty this nation has to offer. And for those few days in my car, life felt normal and I had escaped the COVID grind.
In September, during a UCI Alumni Association interview, I was asked whether this was the first time that public health – and a virus – had been politicized. I responded that the field has a long history of being at odds with groups (individuals, governments, businesses). At its very core, public health is focused on the wellbeing of communities, and that means there are times when individual rights may be second to the public good.
But COVID-19 has challenged the discipline in ways not seen before. This pandemic has often been accompanied by continued pressure to move health policy from a needed “mandate” to a softer “recommendation.” Around the country, public health directors have been asked to compromise and negotiate around the science of the virus to accommodate competing needs. I am reminded that my role as a leader in the field at UCI is to work with faculty and students so that we can better collect the evidence and defend the science of public health overall. Together with communities, we can translate this science into meaningful behavioral changes that save lives. We have our work set out for us!
When asked, my 5-year-old granddaughter can provide a list of the good and bad things about COVID. The bad are obvious, but in her innocence, she talks about how COVID has allowed her to be with her family all the time. I echo her sentiments; never have I more greatly appreciated my family and friends around the country and the globe. I have learned to value my time with them, whether it’s by phone, via FaceTime or – after a quarantine and a negative COVID test – in person.
Moving to the West Coast and onto a campus knowing no one, I continue to be surprised by the warmth and kindness of this community. Despite rising COVID cases, social distancing and shelter-in-place orders, people have found ways to connect: the flowers left at the door as a welcome, the box of cinnamon buns baked by my neighbor’s daughter Violet just because it was “a cinnamon bun day,” the parade of teachers in cars thanking students. In our shared experiences, we find little things meaningful, and we pass them along.
I end this reflection on the “longest year” on a hopeful note. I write this as the first vaccine for COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) is approved and trucks loaded with it are traversing the country. The knowledge that we gained from the last SARS epidemic provided the foundation for the rapid development of this vaccine. The public health challenges faced with HIV/AIDS around behavioral change helped frame a harm reduction strategy we use now with COVID. At UCI’s Program in Public Health, we have begun tackling the issue of vaccine hesitancy as a way to better inform strategies to halt further COVID viral transmission. The lessons we are learning from this experience will help to better protect us now and in future epidemics.