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How chief health officers could help campuses navigate COVID

October 15, 2020, 10:41 PM UTC

Good afternoon, readers.

We held the latest in our series of virtual Brainstorm Health panel discussions on Thursday with a conversation about why having a chief health officer (CHO) is so important to ensuring public health safety on college campuses.

We were joined by Dr. William Kassler, deputy CHO at IBM; Dr. Sandro Galea, dean of Boston University’s School of Public Health; and Dr. Preeti Malani, CHO at University of Michigan, in a conversation moderated by Fortune editor-in-chief Clifton Leaf.

While college and university campuses have dedicated medical units to look out for student safety, the idea of having, specifically, a chief health officer is still fairly new. But that position could prove critical during the COVID pandemic as even some of the most cautious schools across the nation see outbreaks.

“Universities are very complex,” said Kassler. “They’re large employers. They function like a business, they’re an important economic business. And then you add to that fact that they’re a population in and of themselves. People congregate together, there’s socializing, sports and all that.”

Kassler went on to say that universities’ responsibility to public health extends beyond simple health services or HR. It’s now a matter of epidemiological logistics which cross paths with all of those other issues, as well as policy considerations such as remote learning, making the role of a chief health officer particularly important.

Malani of the University of Michigan has a truly unique perspective on this issue: She’s a CHO herself at the school, she’s a professor of medicine and infectious disease expert, and the parent of a junior at Michigan.

“There is loneliness, and it’s gotten worse” on campuses, she said. “Frankly, the residential experience could become so sub-optimal that it’s not worth the lift. “The idea of putting thousands of people together in tight quarters is difficult. College campuses aren’t meant for social distancing, they’re meant for togetherness.”

Among the advice that she has for students is to establish tighter social circles, to keep on masks, and to try not to eat and drink in groups, especially indoors.

Galea ended the talk on a more sober note, pointing out that so much of the conversation around coronavirus has been gloom and doom that it’s become difficult to have more mature and adult discussions about what we can do to address the crisis. “I don’t think the narrative has served the public well,” he said.

Read on for the day’s news, and see you next week.

Sy Mukherjee


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