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National Public Health Week 2020 Provides Virtual Opportunities to Learn and Connect

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Written by Tori Forsheim on April 24, 2020

This year’s National Public Health Week was different for many reasons. For one, we’re in a time when public health is actually on the forefront of everyone’s minds. For another, it’s not hard to make the argument that we’re experiencing public health year, and shouldn’t limit our celebration to only one week. And finally, this year we were forced to celebrate from the safety of our computer screens—NPHW 2020 went digital. 

The activities focused heavily on wellbeing in the time of coronavirus. The student council from ColoradoSPH at UNC hosted a drop-in yoga session to stretch stress away. There was a virtual cooking class and nutrition discussion, and the ColoradoSPH Total Health Committee sponsored yoga, high-intensity interval training, and an upper body and core workout. 

ColoradoSPH at CSU looked to the future of the Master of Public Health program and hosted an online discussion forum that focused on incorporating more health equity curriculum into the Foundations of Public Health Course first-year students are required to take. Friday afternoon ended on a high note with a virtual public health trivia night. 

“Switching NPHW to a completely virtual format allowed us to plan a week of events that were truly for the entire tri-campus community,” said ColoradoSPH at CSU Student Council President Erin Walls. 

National Public Health Week attendees got a bonus event the following Monday. ColoradoSPH Dean Jonathan Samet, Environmental and Occupational Health Assistant Professor Beth Carlton, and State Epidemiologist and Communicable Disease Branch Chief at the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment Rachel Herlihy presented a webinar on how a volunteer team from ColoradoSPH has been modeling different potential outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic in Colorado and how CDPHE and the governor’s office have been using those data to make policy decisions. Over 1,400 people tuned in for the lunchtime webinar and question and answer session. 

2020 marked the 25th anniversary of National Public Health Week and came with the theme “Looking Back, Moving Forward.” The theme felt incredibly appropriate for the time we’re living in. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s been an uptick in conversations about public health’s past: the general population speaks about the lessons learned during the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918, a free online course from Harvard University entitled “John Snow and the Cholera Epidemic of 1854” registered more than 13,000 attendees, and the wait at the library for a copy of John M. Barry’s The Great Influenza is almost seven months. People are looking for public health lessons from the past. 

At the same time, public health practitioners see opportunities for growth in local, national, and international public health response. The COVID-19 pandemic has given many public health practitioners hope that public health funding and staffing will increase in the future. Weaknesses in epidemic preparedness have been exposed that can be rectified moving forward. A global pandemic only exacerbates socio-economic discrepancies in the quality of health and the systemic issues that underlie those discrepancies that must be addressed. As we look to the future, there are new questions about global interconnectedness, vaccine development and programs, and public health tools that didn’t exist in 1918, and NPHW 2020 provided the perfect opportunity to celebrate all the people driving those conversations forward to achieve better health for everyone.