Illustration of Coronavirus bacteria

An illustration revealing the ultrastructural morphology exhibited by coronaviruses. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC))

COVID-19: Q&A with Whitney P. Witt, Dean of the Lehigh University College of Health

The inaugural dean of Lehigh's College of Health explains how a population health response, focused on data, is key to saving lives.

Story by

Lori Friedman

Photography by

Christa Neu

According to Whitney P. Witt, the inaugural dean of Lehigh’s College of Health, the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic both confirms and elevates the importance of population health and Lehigh’s focus on this new field.

The College aims to transform population health education with data science and innovation to improve the health of communities locally, nationally and globally. The rapid spread of COVID-19 through populations around the world has provided clear evidence of the importance of that work and its potential impact on society.

“I started my career in public health working at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis conducting advocacy for people living with HIV/AIDS,” says Witt. “Living through the HIV/AIDS pandemic made a huge impression on me personally and ultimately changed the direction of my career — in fact I would not be in this field had I not worked alongside my clients to protect them from being homeless. There is much to be learned from history so as to not repeat itself. To me this is where the power of data and personal story comes in and in using these insights to make decisions that are timely and well-informed.”

Portrait of Whitney P. Witt

Whitney P. Witt

Witt explains how a population health response, focused on data, is key to saving lives and protecting the most vulnerable among us during this global health crisis:

Q: What is the path forward to halt the spread of COVID-19?

A: The acceleration of COVID-19 recovery will depend on three things: (1) widespread testing; (2) physical distancing; and (3) resources for healthcare providers and systems to provide treatment. The more vigilant we are around these 3 priorities now will help in “flattening of the curve.” As a society we have to be ready to safely help.  We are all in this together. It is amazing to see the times when people have come together to help one another during national crises. We are in one now—I have no doubt that we will band together to weather this storm.

Q: Can you explain the term “flattening the curve”? Why is increased testing and the practice of “social distancing” so important to this effort?

A: “Flattening the curve” means changing the slope of the epidemic curve. In other words, we are trying to slow the spread of disease. The level of steepness of the epidemic curve is an indication of how quickly a disease is spreading. Flattening the curve can have a significant impact on health outcomes. By reducing the rate of spread of COVID-19, we can reduce the risk to vulnerable populations, the impact on the health care system, and serious complications and mortality.

Early and widespread testing for COVID-19 is critical for flattening the curve for several reasons. Testing will allow us to identify symptomatic and/or high-risk individuals so that they can be isolated and treated quickly, safely, and effectively.  In addition, without widespread testing we do not know the true number of active cases and those who have recovered. Why is this important? Data help us understand the speed of the spread of the pandemic and which infection control measures are effective.  Without these data we might as well be flying blind— in reactive mode as opposed to proactive mode.

What we really mean by the term “social distancing” is the need for “physical distancing.” Social interaction is critical for mental health, support, information, and having a sense of community.  With technology, we are fortunately able to socially stay connected virtually and engage in our communities in new and different and yet positive and powerful ways.

Physical distancing may need to occur for some time until we see that the spread is dissipating and/or a vaccine becomes available. We will not see the effects of “herd immunity” (when the great majority of a community is immune) until a large percentage of the population is no longer contagious or have been immunized through exposure or vaccines.

Q: What are public health professionals’ top concerns right now?

In the U.S., the biggest public health concern is making sure that our healthcare system is prepared for when we expect to see the peak of people needing inpatient care.  The health and well-being of health care providers is paramount. We need to ensure their personal safety and their families through testing, monitoring and adequate resources to support them in being able to care for those with COVID-19.  Hospitals will need adequate supplies and resources from the test kits, personal protective equipment (PPE), ICU beds and ventilators.

There will be rippling effects from the pandemic including social and economic consequences. For example, individuals who work as hourly wage employees without sick leave or health insurance will be especially hard hit because they are the most likely to be exposed because of the nature of their jobs and the least likely to get tested or cared for. As a society, we must all band together to help each other in our times of need.

Q: What impact, if any, does COVID-19 pandemic have on Lehigh’s College of Health?

A. The COVID-19 pandemic underscores the importance of population health and the growing need for such scientists and the increasing opportunity for employment in health data science. We teach students about the multiple determinants of health, data analytics, and the translation of research into practice. Our students are among the first in the world to participate in the COH’s one of a kind undergraduate, graduate and executive education population health programs with a focus on health innovation and technology.

Tracking pandemics like COVID-19 underscores the critical importance of timely and accurate data and the use of sophisticated analytics to monitor and predict the path of this pandemic.  We are developing new technologies to help analyze COVID-19 and other relevant data, from artificial intelligence (AI) and multilevel modeling to virtual reality data visualizations. When couched in strong theory and applied to high quality data, these emerging analytics can be used to inform how we prevent the spread of COVID-19, potentially saving the lives of millions of people from premature death both here in the U.S. and around the globe.

Social, economic and environmental factors have been increasingly tied to the impact of emerging diseases on health outcomes.  Population health is an approach that takes these factors into account when thinking about prevention all the way up through policy level interventions.

Q: What would you like prospective College of Health students to know?  

We are looking for students who have a passion for health data science, social epidemiology, and health innovation and technology. To prospective students, if you are looking for an incredibly gratifying career that stands to impact the health of millions—Lehigh’s College of Health is your educational home. 

As the Dean, I am committed to the diversity of the student population and we strongly encourage under-represented populations to apply.

Q: What resources do you recommend for reliable, accurate and up-to-date information on the COVID-19 pandemic?

Here’s a list of reliable resources:

WHO Dashboard for COVID-19

Johns Hopkins CSSE Live Mapping of COVID-19

NIH

U.S. State Health Departments

European Country MOH websites

PubMed Recent Studies

WHO Research

National Library of Medicine Research

Whitney P. Witt is the inaugural dean of Lehigh’s College of Health. In addition to her 25 years working on population health issues in academia and industry, Witt is a longtime and influential member of the American Public Health Association (APHA). She is currently the Chair of the Maternal and Child Health (MCH) Section of APHA, where she is responsible for providing thought leadership to over 2,500 public health professionals.

Story by

Lori Friedman

Photography by

Christa Neu

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