PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — In March 2020, the SARS-CoV-2 virus took the nation by storm. The COVID-19 pandemic blindsided leaders and forced hasty decisions that came with long-term repercussions for the health and well-being of Americans, and local, national and global economies.
In 2022, the Brown University School of Public Health launched its Pandemic Center with the goal of reducing the chance for repeat mistakes. There’s no doubt that future public health emergencies will arise, said founding director Jennifer Nuzzo, and the country urgently needs to be better prepared.
“The reality is that we have seen over time an increasing number of new infectious disease threats,” said Nuzzo, an epidemiologist who focuses on global health security, public health preparedness and response, and health systems resilience. “That has to do with several factors, including how we've changed our relationship with the environment and how we, as humans, have changed behaviorally. In the future, we could see events that have an even greater potential to negatively impact society than COVID-19.”
At the outset of the pandemic, she said, the nation launched into crisis mode, and leaders made decisions quickly with the best information they had at the time. But the next emergency should come as less of a surprise: “Three years later, we should absolutely be asking what worked and what didn’t, so that next time we can do better.”
Scholars at the Pandemic Center are working not only to ensure the world more fully understands catastrophic threats like viral pandemics, but also to develop tools, policies and practices to mitigate and prevent their harmful impacts. Brown’s commitment to collaboration across disparate fields of study makes it an ideal place to carry out that work, Nuzzo said.
Working with partners toward the center’s mission extends well beyond campus. too. As just one example, the Pandemic Center is collaborating with the COVID Collaborative and the Center for Strategic and International Studies Global Health Policy Center to convene a bipartisan effort focused on unearthing state and community lessons from the pandemic. Beth Cameron, senior advisor to the Pandemic Center and a Brown professor of the practice, is leading that effort for the School of Public Health.
Most recently, that team organized a roundtable of nearly 40 leaders: governors and mayors; officials from red, blue and purple states and from the Biden, Trump, Obama and Bush administrations; and experts in incident management and pandemic inequity. The group produced a report that discusses failures, highlights community successes and, Nuzzo said, points to a path forward.
With the three-year anniversary of COVID’s major impact in the U.S. having arrived this month, Nuzzo and Cameron shared three key takeaways from pandemic, and described how the Pandemic Center will use them to inform realistic strategies for future response.
Lesson 1: A successful public health response does far more than limit the number of disease cases
The impacts of the pandemic have been profoundly far-reaching: it cost the world millions of lives and trillions of dollars, and caused major societal deficits in learning, health and well-being.
“Case numbers didn't represent the totality of how the virus was affecting us,” Nuzzo said.
She pointed out that beyond the individuals directly infected by the virus, the COVID-19 pandemic harmed health and society in multiple ways — for example, by setting back a generation in terms of learning, worsening a national mental health crisis, causing people to forgo necessary medical treatment, and damaging the well-being of workers unable to make a living.
Unintended harmful effects of laser-focused COVID mitigation strategies can erode public support for public health, Nuzzo said, citing stories from people who were prevented by lockdowns from getting medical care or tending to a dying loved one.
“Emergencies touch all aspects of not just public health, but of society,” Nuzzo said. “So we need plans that have a broad scope.”
Nuzzo said that expanding the definition of a public health response means integrating the effects of pandemics on education, the economy and society overall; broadening and updating the concept of how public health operates to protect Americans; and creating stable, consistent mechanisms that are capable of bridging sectors and parties during biomedical crises.
Data is essential to creating those kinds of complex, multi-layered approaches, she added: “We need better, faster data to inform better, faster decision-making.”
In a pandemic, useful data goes beyond case counts, Nuzzo explained — it identifies gradations of risk. She cited masks as an example: Part of the reason there is such an intense and heated debate over mask mandates, she said, is that there aren’t enough good studies that help communities understand how to use masks and masking policies to reduce infections.