Almost half of John Samet’s tenure as dean of the Colorado School of Public Health has been spent fighting COVID-19, from modeling the spread of the virus to advising state and local leaders; he even found time to keep a regular blog with his thoughts on the situation.
Now at the end of his time as the school’s longest-serving administrator, Samet is literally battling COVID-19, which he contracted after a wedding in Scotland. He’s feeling good, he said: He’s fully vaccinated and twice boosted. In his blog, “Dean’s Notes,” he describes the circumstances that led to his infection as only an epidemiologist can, rating the ventilation of an assembly (poor); of the spread of the virus in Scotland (one in 18 residents is currently infected); and for the cause of this high rate of spread (two highly transmissible subvariants).
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When Samet became dean of the school in 2017, he committed to a minimum five-year term. The school — a joint effort of the state’s three major public universities — was then a decade old. Five years have come and gone, half of them consumed by COVID-19, and Samet has announced that he will step down as dean after his replacement is appointed later this year.
When he started, he had a strategic plan, much of which was focused on strengthening the reputation, weight and pedigree of a fledgling program. COVID-19 was an “aberration” from that plan that came right in the middle of his five-year commitment. Diversion or not, it was important, he said, because it helped further establish the school while cementing relationships with local and state public health officials.
Young faculty have been recruited, and although Samet recommends that “nobody pay attention” to the US News & World Report rankings, he does note that his school is now the 19th best graduate health education program in the country by nearly 200.
“We’ve accomplished a lot in five years,” he said.
He won’t retire — his list of upcoming projects includes writing a book on research pending completion of a radon and uranium mining project that’s been in limbo for years — and will instead join the school’s teaching staff. His expertise is in respiratory health – he’s a pulmonologist by training and has focused on tobacco and secondhand smoke – and there’s plenty to keep him busy for a while.
Still, his impending retreat and the change in the COVID-19 pandemic allow for some reflection.
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He’s optimistic about the future of public health, even after two years of his field becoming a piñata for anyone looking to vent their frustrations about COVID-19. It has become more professional since he began his career several decades ago: training has improved, new tools and research methods are available. The scope of public health has grown, from sanitation inspections and posters on sexually transmitted infections to dealing with the tobacco industry, and is now becoming the front line in the response to COVID-19.
It’s a silver lining to the pandemic, he said: It has “brought a new prominence to public health and its resilience in the public eye.” The extent to which it has been politicized and its findings and recommendations derailed by misinformation – these are the biggest surprises of the last two years.
He was also surprised by how “extremely cynical” some politicians were to “politicize an essential tool of public health, whether it’s vaccinations or respiratory protection.”
“It was really unfortunate,” he continued. “It costs lives.”
Pandemics have always been political — go back and look at 1918, he said — but this pandemic still stands apart.
He pointed to the dissolution of the tri-county Department of Health — the largest county-level health agency in the state — as evidence. The department was beset by political rifts within the three constituent counties, and after they pulled out of the agency one by one, it will cease to exist at the end of this year.
Tri-County, he said, “is a great example of what has happened to politics and public health.”
It’s not the only one: Public health leadership from across the state — and the country — “took a hit,” Samet said. Public health and medical groups are “burnt out” and have lost critical staff.
But he hopes the next generation of professionals, motivated by what they’ve experienced over the past two and a half years, will step into the breach.
“The need for public health and (ensuring we have) public health infrastructure has been made clear,” he said, “which should lead to strengthening… This should be a moment where we step back and reflect and think about what we need to let’s do further.”
does this happen Even now, the United States is struggling to deal with an outbreak of monkeypox, which is much milder than COVID-19, at a time when the nation should be well-versed in containing the disease’s spread.
Strengthening public health, Samet said, will happen “in patches” across the country. He said Colorado is in a good position, praising the state’s health leaders and the collaboration between local public health agencies. State data systems need to be improved, as is true across the country, and the workforce also needs strengthening. Ever the administrator, Samet said the School of Public Health can help with both issues. He is committed, he said, to serving this region specifically.
“I think we’ve learned, for example, that (public health) is an anchor and we’re needed to protect the health of the population,” he said. Vaccines and other responses pushed by health officials were a “major contribution” that saved lives, whatever the public and politics may have said about them.
That’s the other thing: “We learned (that) the public certainly didn’t understand public health at the beginning of the pandemic, or not much of the public,” Samet said. “I think that perception has advanced. It has advanced favorable to the majority and unfavorable to the minority. I think one lesson we have is that we need to improve the understanding of public health and why it’s important.”
It is a concept, in part, of a public good for the public good. Wearing a mask protects you, but it also protects everyone around you. The idea that collective action is necessary and important, Samet said, “somewhere we need to explain that better.”