SPHHP students are applying their learning and research during the pandemic, which has offered them an unexpected learning environment in real time.
MPH students at SPHHP have been helping local health departments across the state respond to the COVID-19 crisis with since March. Students Arline Matias, Rebecca Hoelzl, Madeline Toczek and Justin Rokisky, Jr., are working with five county health departments that span the western region of the state, all the way to Long Island. They’re completing epidemiologic summaries, arranging for COVID-19 testing, placing and monitoring individuals in quarantine or isolation, and communicating state and federal guidance to providers and the public.
Occupational therapy students broke out the sewing machines, making masks and donating them to group homes, corrections officers, grocery store workers and mental health associations. Notes included with the masks thanked essential workers for their service.
In addition, OT students in the Class of 2021 created a series of activities for children to continue to work on developing their skills while schooling at home. They presented the activities in a series of easy-to-understand videos.
When Western New Yorkers have questions about the COVID-19 pandemic, they can’t just ask New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo. But UB MPH student Alexa Schenk is making sure her family and friends have someone to turn to for information: Schenk herself.
A second-year grad student in the Individualized Master of Public Health program in the Department of Community Health and Health Behavior, Schenk quickly understood that this spring’s news about panic buying and the statewide quarantine had instilled some fear in her family members.
“None of them have lived through something like this, and they also didn’t really know what quarantining meant,” Schenk said, so she stepped up to the plate. She was reading a great deal of information about COVID-19 in her MPH classes, as well as trying to keep up on her own with information from health departments, the CDC and other sources.
“I started offering my family anything I could,” she said, “thinking that maybe the information coming from a familiar face would help.” For instance, guidelines and graphs coming out of Gov. Cuomo’s office and the Erie County Department of Health were “cool” to Schenk, but she could see that others found the information harder to understand. So Schenk starting providing easier-to-understand versions of the
information--advice on how to stay safe, how to wear a mask, wash their hands, etc. “For example, in the beginning, we were told that we needed to make sure the PPE [personal protective equipment] got in hands of medical professionals and not to buy them,” she explained. “Now, it’s ‘masks really work.’” Over time, more family members started to call or text Schenk with questions.
Today, she’s in constant remote contact—group chats and FaceTime--with about 15 people, updating them on what she’s been learning. She has also been using her own social media accounts to communicate. Many of Schenk’s friends, for instance, use Twitter regularly, so she retweets Gov. Cuomo’s and Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz’s tweets, making sure people see information from credible sources.
“There’s so much misinformation and opinions going around. It’s helpful for me to say, ‘Let me see what you read,’ to get to the bottom of their fears.” For instance, Schenk has taken on misperceptions on susceptibility. When Schenk comes across infographics that explain things well, she sends them to relatives to illustrate topics they had talked about previously.
Schenk was born and raised in Buffalo and has an undergraduate from UB in anthropology with a concentration in medical anthropology and minors in public health and counseling. As an MPH student, she loves looking a problem from the different perspectives of epidemiology, biostatistics, and community health and health behavior. All these perspectives come into play in her communication with family and friends. Now that New York is opening up, Schenk continues to try to make sure people are masking, washing hands, and taking other precautions. Her family have been receptive and “trying to do their best.”
“When they see what’s going on in Florida or Texas, compared to [New York’s lower infection rate], it’s a big deal to tell them even just a 1% infection rate could mean 50 people today get [COVID-19]. I have to tell my grandparents that we can’t do family dinners every week, at least at the beginning,” she said. On the other hand, some of Schenk’s friends who are the same age or students think that greater freedom or lower infection rates mean “it’s okay to go out,” she said.
“I keep reminding them that the reason we’re low is because we’ve doing all these things to stay safe. The majority of newer cases are younger people, but oddly it’s harder to talk to people who are closer to my age. I have to prove to them that we still have to be super safe.”
For Schenk, a useful aspect of the flood of information around the pandemic is that the people close to her have begun to understand what she wants to do in her career.
“It’s hard to describe what public health does sometimes because it’s so wide ranging,” she said. “The role of public health is to educate the public on what is known and what’s changing, and make it easy to understand for everyone.”
Today, Schenk’s key messages focus on keeping up the effort: “The reason New York’s numbers have got this low is because we’ve been working together as a community to stay quarantined, wear masks, we’re doing the right things. People want to get out more, but we’re so close and if we keep doing what we’ve been doing and stay strong, we can keep it going and not spike like they’ve been doing in other parts of the country.