Q&A: More Healthcare Advisory Group Members Weigh in on COVID-19

A person in a blue shirt writes on a piece of paperAnantha Shekhar has begun his tenure as Pitt’s new senior vice chancellor for the Health Sciences, John and Gertrude Petersen Dean of the School of Medicine, and professor of psychiatry this month with an unanticipated additional title.

Shekhar has been called upon to head the Chancellor’s Healthcare Advisory Group (HCAG), which is guiding plans for returning operations to campus amid uncertain and changeable conditions.

“I have the responsibility for setting up health policies, managing their implementation and making sure we create the best-in-class model for the chancellor to manage the University under the ‘new normal under COVID-19’,” said Shekhar. 

He’s leading a best-in-class Pitt team with collective expertise in health care, law, medicine, public health, occupational health and safety, infectious diseases and epidemiological modeling and emergency preparedness.

In this second of a two-part Q&A series, we’ve asked these top experts to weigh in on four quick questions about what they know—and what they’re learning—as they meet to guide Pitt’s resiliency planning for a return to campus.

In part one, Jay Frerotte, Anne Newman, Sally Wenzel and John Williams weighed in on our questions.

Here in part two,

  • Maggie McDonald, associate vice chancellor for academic affairs and international programs, Health Sciences;
  • Kimberly Moses, health care attorney in the Office of University Counsel; and
  • Mark Roberts, professor and chair, Health Policy and Management and director of the Public Health Dynamics Laboratory in the Graduate School of Public Health

add their insights to the conversation.

How would you explain your field of expertise to someone without a health, science or safety background?­

Maggie McDonaldMcDonald: I’m trained as an epidemiologist. Epidemiologists study patterns of disease and how to control disease in an entire population, rather than individual by individual. However, for most of my career at Pitt (I’m now working with my third senior vice chancellor for the health sciences), my work has centered around public affairs, communications (before coming to Pitt I was a health and science journalist), academic program development and, over the last decade, development of global academic partnerships in the health sciences.

Moses: I am an attorney who provides legal support and advice to the University in the areas associated with health care and health sciences. This advice includes contracts, regulatory compliance and risk management.

Roberts: I am a board-certified general internist and health policy expert who has over 30 years’ experience using mathematical models to understand the impact of possible strategies to improve public health problems. 

For example, we have estimated the potential harm to children from decreasing vaccination rates against measles. We have done work in modeling HIV disease and influenza and have recently developed population models of COVID-19.

What’s the most unexpected or surprising question or detail that’s come up for the advisory group’s review? 

Kimberly MosesMcDonald: How to address dating and close personal relationships among students in a COVID-19 world. What do they need to do to keep themselves and others safe?

Moses: The advisory group has spent a significant amount of time on the topic of travel and transportation. Given the diversity of our University community, this has required a tremendous amount of discussion and planning.

Roberts: I have found the lack of national recommendations for higher education surprising.

What is something you've learned through your experience living through this pandemic as a normal member of the community and outside your role as an expert in your field?

McDonald: First is that a simpler life is not so bad. Second is that I’m a much better cook than I thought I was. Third is that cats can be really good therapists.

Moses: How much we took for granted our ability to socialize up close and personal prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. When I look at photos from the 2019 holiday season with my family and friends, I feel like we will never be able to socialize and celebrate that way again. I hope I’m wrong.

Roberts: I remain continually surprised at how many people appear not to take the threat of COVID-19 seriously. I see groups of people congregating without masks, not social distancing.

What would you say to a student or parent worried about health and safety on campus this fall?

Mark RobertsMcDonald: Pitt has convened the best experts—some of whom are also working with other institutions facing the same issues—to bring students back to campus as safely as possible while retaining the essence of the campus experience.

A little risk is part of life. Pitt students are smart. We need to give them guidance based on best available evidence and then trust them to find the right balance of keeping themselves safe and enjoying the Pitt experience. 

Moses: To mitigate the spread of infection, it will be very important that all members of the campus community take seriously their individual responsibilities to create an environment that protects themselves as well as others. This starts with adhering to University recommendations, exercising discipline and being vigilant.

Roberts: The University of Pittsburgh is committed to balancing students’ educational needs with the safety concerns that we all have about this new disease, and our efforts to prevent and contain its spread. 

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