​University Public Health Department: What, Why, How

by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer

Beginning with the fall semester, the newly formed Public Health Department became part of the University’s Risk Management team. “The goals of the Public Health Department extend beyond COVID, but the immediacy of COVID is where we really jump in,” said Dr. Mary Heath, who, with Public Health Officer Mariel Gingrich, heads up the department. “The focus is on testing and keeping COVID within circumscribed boundaries to keep everyone healthy and safe.”

“The goal is to stop the spread of COVID on campus,” said Gingrich. “The challenges are multitudinous.”

“COVID can be spread asymptomatically, so people are spreading it before they know they have it,” Gingrich said. “The symptoms can be vague and mild like a cold. There’s a nationwide shortage of testing and lab capacity. And there’s the issue of public perception. Some people are ambivalent about the spread of COVID and others want to shut down everything.”

Pointing to the importance of “communicating, making sure the community is consistently engaged, not just for a day or two,” Heath acknowledged the role played by “the fatigue of testing, fatigue of thinking about this.” Heath went on to stress, “The disease is not static. It’s always moving and the interplay with surrounding communities is always happening by way of other school districts, athletic teams, going to the grocery store.”

Breaking that idea down into action, Gingrich said, “Just because you test negative, don’t stop masking and neglect handwashing and practicing social distancing. Don’t throw caution to the wind. Just because testing is frequent, don’t stop masking. Life has to go on, but we can’t forget it has changed.”

“I’m a physician in town with Sewanee Pediatrics, so my audience is broader than faculty, staff, and students,” Heath said. “We hope to have more time to communicate beyond the University bubble. The whole county should be wearing masks.”

Heath met with Franklin County Director of Schools Stanley Bean and school principals and recommended mask wearing for all public-school students and employees, but the policy was not adopted except at Sewanee Elementary. The University has a Domain-wide mask mandate in place.

Top on the immediate agenda for Gingrich and Heath is promoting the importance of getting a flu vaccine.

“People don’t get flu vaccines at the rate they should,” Gingrich said. “The flu sends hundreds of thousands of people to the doctor each year. During an existing pandemic that’s especially stressful. The symptoms are much like COVID. Why should you get vaccinated: one, so you won’t mistake your symptoms for COVID; and, two, so you won’t run to the doctor and get exposed to COVID or take up resources needed by those who do have COVID.”

Gingrich and Heath both grew up with parents who worked in public health. After earning an undergraduate degree in English, Gingrich worked in communications in the public health sector and decided to pursue a career in that field earning a master’s degree. Following college, Heath served in the Peace Corp and discovered how satisfying it was helping people, “helping parents have healthy children.”

Gingrich finds herself drawn to consider “the larger societal implications.” But she insisted, “I encourage everyone to be responsible, but not to be mean. It doesn’t help. Stress brings out the worst in people.”

Gingrich and Heath’s foremost immediate message: “Help us out. Help yourself. Get a flu vaccine.”