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Stempel College rises to the challenge during COVID-19

As news of a novel virus began spreading throughout the world, faculty at FIU’s Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work tracked it and prepared for its impact.

“Early on, we could see that this virus was not behaving like previous strains of the coronavirus and the medical community around the world began to brace for what was coming,” said Carlos Espinal, director of the Global Health Consortium at Stempel College and consultant for the Pan American Health Organization / World Health Organization (PAHO/WHO). During the pandemic, Espinal has been consulting with PAHO/WHO on ways to improve health outcomes in Latin America as well as serving on a task force to advise the government of Cartagena, Colombia.

Feeling the pulse of the virus and the changes that it would make to the world; faculty throughout the college quickly began to look for ways to support communities throughout South Florida.

For Mary Jo Trepka, chair of the Department of Epidemiology, that meant informing the community through countless media interviews with topics ranging from contact tracing to the risks of restaurants reopening. She also has served on the City of Miami Phased Comeback Plan Advisory Board providing expertise on interpretation of the COVID-19 data.

In a project with the City of Miami, Trepka worked alongside Zoran Bursac, chair of the Department of Biostatistics, and Gabriel J. Odom, assistant professor in the Department of Biostatistics to determine if there was a statistically significant decrease in the number of cases and percentage of cases that are positive, one gating criteria for phase one of reopening. The faculty participated in a video announcing phase one of the Stand Up Miami plan along with City of Miami Mayor, Francis Suarez.

Understanding how supplements and foods can provide the nutrients to boost the immune system, Cristina Palacios, associate professor in the Department of Dietetics and Nutrition, worked with a team of international experts to develop a guide for the Latin American Society of Nutrition (SLAN) to help frontline workers protect their health.

“Frontline workers, whether they are healthcare workers or essential personnel in other industries that are helping our communities stay afloat, are putting their health on the line and I hope that with these recommendations, we can at least help guide them to be safer,” Palacios said.

School of Social Work faculty Lourdes Martin, clinical assistant professor, and Beatrice Farnsworth, clinical instructor, have more than doubled their caseload with NeighborhoodHELP while supervising 20 students who are completing internships either case managers or therapists in the community via telehealth. 

“We were all suddenly thrust into this new way of working overnight. It’s a big change for our clients who depend on social workers and social services and for us, as we have had to adjust the way we work but we’ve stayed strong to help the community,” Martin said.

Meanwhile, faculty throughout the college have submitted grant supplement proposals that will give them the funding they need to research the virus’s impact on underrepresented communities such as people living with HIV, migrant workers, and individuals with cannabis use disorder.

Additionally, dozens of Stempel College students have been on the frontlines, working with the State of Florida on the official response, assisting at Emergency Operations Centers throughout the county, and providing support through counseling and nutritional advice.

Stempel College faculty have also been working on the university’s response to the pandemic.

Bridget Pelaez, assistant director for the Division of Operations and Safety and adjunct faculty at the Academy for International Disaster Preparedness, has been central in FIU’s efforts at the COVID-19 testing site; a partnership between the university, Miami-Dade County, the Florida Department of Health and the Miami-Dade County Fair & Exposition. Each day, Pelaez along with Pete Gomez, senior director at the Academy for International Disaster Preparedness, and a team of medical experts test more than 300 individuals to determine if they have contracted the virus.

Pelaez also led an initiative that donated ventilators on behalf of the FIU-Fast team to the State of Florida and has also been running the face shield initiative in partnership with FIU’s College of Communication, Architecture, + The Arts (CARTA).

To help ensure that the university takes the right steps to keep the community safe, Dean Tomás R. Guilarte and Trepka are part of an interdisciplinary task force to determine a systematic phased approach to reopening and repopulating the university.

“Stempel College has been heavily involved in the COVID-19 pandemic from many different perspectives. We all want to get back to normal, or at least a new normal that will allow our university and community to bounce back while still protecting their health and safety,” Guilarte said. “While our students and faculty continue to help in the response, it is important to remember that we will get past this and together we can find a new normal where society can, once again, thrive.”

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