In the University of Northern Iowa’s Health, Recreation and Community Services Department, Disa Cornish and her colleagues are training the next generation of public health advocates in Iowa -- a generation that is witnessing firsthand a larger-than-life fight against COVID-19. Cornish shared with the Business Record how an ongoing pandemic influences teaching public health students. 

How has the current crisis affected your department and day-to-day work?
I teach epidemiology, and we have been talking about coronavirus since the first week of classes. The content hasn’t really changed, but what’s changed is the way that we’re finding ways to connect with students. 

This has really galvanized their interest, love, passion for public health because they are seeing it in action every day. When things are going well, you don’t know that public health is working in your community. When everything’s running smoothly, public health is this sort of thankless thing that’s going on because we don’t see it working. It’s only in times of crisis where you really see public health everywhere. … It’s really given us this opportunity to apply what we’re teaching in class.  

One of the things we talk about in public health and health education is finding ways to serve as a resource person in our community, and our students are doing that informally and formally. We have students who are dispelling myths and providing good health information to their friends and family … but we also have students who are working in care facilities, with nonprofits and food banks who are actually out doing work in their communities and serving as a resource person that way. … We have faculty who are on the Black Hawk County Board of Health, who are engaged with the Tyson plant [in Waterloo] as well. We have faculty who work as EMS responders and are active in the community in that way, we have faculty who serve in national and global relief efforts, and they are deployed regularly in a relief capacity around the world, and we have people who are here volunteering and engaging in students. 

Has your department launched any research projects since COVID-19 arrived in Iowa? I do have a student who switched her master’s thesis topic -- she was going to be doing community nutrition and agriculture, and she’s now doing her master’s thesis on the psychosocial impact for students. A colleague and I are looking into maybe doing some work on social support, or ways that people connected with others and ways that they found support during the epidemic. 

There’s a need in the community that’s taking precedence over research activities in some cases, but we’re also trying to keep the research alive, and we have a very full-time job focusing on our students … 99% of my time is really focused right now on making sure that my students are OK. 

What are the misconceptions around epidemiology? I think there’s a big misconception that we should be able to have a silver bullet fix or solution tomorrow. The study of the immune system, viruses, pandemics and demography -- all of that takes really accurate and good data, which takes a little time to collect. 

A lot of the frustrations with shelter-at-home ordinances, I think that frustration comes from the [idea that] we should have had an answer by now. The reality is that a vaccine could take two years to develop, and so we have to think about ways that social norms can change. 

In general in the United States, many public health departments are underfunded and don’t have the capacity to respond quickly at a large scale. We also have hospital systems that are shrinking, especially in rural areas, and that makes [responding] challenging. 

What is contact tracing, and what should businesses expect if they need it? Working with your local public health department is critical. … Contact tracing involves speaking with people who were exposed, and then talking to other employees that came into contact with that person and looking at their exposure as well. It would be a process and it would take some time, but it would be a really, really important process to carry out completely. Doing it partially wouldn’t have any effect -- it could have potentially a negative impact. 

How will this shape the way your department teaches future students of public health? If it were even possible to be more committed than we already were to teaching public health, … we are even more committed to that now. It’s always a good time to be getting into public health, but our ability to point to public health as a really vibrant, active thing that’s happening in the community is enhanced right now because it’s more visible. … One of the things that we teach them is finding ways to be flexible, finding ways to work with your audience, finding ways to work within the constraints of what’s happening in your community. We are putting those skills to work ourselves at this time, trying to be creative and trying to be flexible. 

It’s really such a fluid situation. … I constantly feel like -- that feeling when you’re walking up the stairs and you miss a step, and your stomach lurches. I think we all have that feeling right now -- we don’t know what’s coming next, and we don’t know what’s going to happen. I know that my students are feeling that, and I think we have to find ways to be more responsive and more flexible.