The COVID-19 pandemic has made unlikely celebrities of public health officers, epidemiologists and infectious diseases specialists. Millions of people now understand that public health practices save lives. And judging by the soaring numbers of applications at schools of public health nationwide, a significant number of those people have decided they want to learn how.
“It is no surprise that a worldwide pandemic created interest in the field of public health,” said Paul Erwin, M.D., DrPH, dean of the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health.
The Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health reported that applications for master’s and doctoral programs were up 23 percent in fall 2020 compared with fall 2019, which the association’s CEO attributed in part to “the Fauci effect.” At UAB, enrollment in the School of Public Health rose 61 percent in the 2020 academic year compared with 2019, including a 92 percent increase in enrollment in the school’s graduate programs in epidemiology.
These students arrived just as the school launched a major revision of the core curriculum for its popular Master of Public Health programs in fall 2020. The goal, Erwin said, is to “allow our graduates to immediately make an impact toward improving the public’s health.” The new curriculum also lets those students “witness firsthand how the research expertise of our faculty gets translated into cutting-edge programs and policies that support the health and well-being of our communities,” he added.
The school’s faculty are leading the way in areas that are crucial to the future of public health, Erwin says, including communicating science to the public through social media and advancing data analysis to better plan for surges in patient volume that have overwhelmed health systems.
On a campus visit two and a half years ago, “I became touched by the School of Public Health’s motto to be somebody who strives to make a difference in their community and the lives of others,” said Haley Greene, who graduated in spring 2020 and now works as an applied epidemiologist at the Virginia Department of Health. “As a student, I was provided with the utmost support and resources to grow.”
The pandemic has affected the career plans of people who were already in public health programs, as well as new arrivals, Greene says.
“I have noticed several public health students switch their interest in chronic disease to infectious disease, along with an influx of individuals interested in public health careers,” she said. “I believe it is an exciting time for early-career public health professionals, as there are many opportunities now and into the future.”