Preparing for the next pandemic
The work of public health, the old adage goes, is often invisible until something goes wrong. So, when the pandemic hit in March 2020, the public health professionals who spent their time running vaccination clinics, conducting tick surveillance, and providing prenatal counselling suddenly found themselves in an unfamiliar position: the spotlight.
Public health has continued to play a pivotal – and very visible role – in the three years since COVID-19 upended our lives. But as the pandemic evolved so, too, has discussion around how we can be better prepared for the next big emergency.
It’s that kind of thinking that led to the creation of a distinct infection prevention and control (IPAC) specialization in the Master of Public Health (MPH) program at Queen’s. Think of it as equipping tomorrow’s public health leaders with the technical skill and hands-on experience that is increasingly required to navigate a rapidly changing world, where the health threats of tomorrow aren’t yet known.
The new specialization is the first of its kind attached to an MPH program in Canada and will help meet the growing demand for public health experts with IPAC training to respond to a broader range of risks in different environments.
“You get all the benefit of having a public health education along with focused training in the science of infection prevention and control and policy implementation,” says Bradley Stoner, professor and head of the department of public health sciences at Queen’s.
He says those skills are more critical than ever, given the ongoing challenges of COVID-19 and the rise of discontent over health restrictions that has spilled over into anger at institutions and public health leaders.
“Trust in public health is really, really important,” Dr. Stoner says. “Transparency in policy decisions is really important as well. I think you get that in our master’s training program. It’s really a nice combination of technical skill development and some of the broader concepts.”
Traditionally, MPH programs train students to have a deep understanding of how diseases spread, what types of responses should be launched when outbreaks occur and how best to promote healthy living within communities.
Students who enroll in the IPAC specialization will undergo advanced, hands-on training in key areas, such as microbiology and understanding pathogens as well as how to control and manage infection risks across environments, such as long-term care facilities or among individuals who are experiencing homelessness. Those skills are becoming increasingly critical, as the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed in new ways just how vulnerable many of those individuals to health inequities.
“The demand is increasing, so there’s a need. And the role is expanding,” says Erica Weir, director of the IPAC specialization program. “The new specialization provides greater technical knowledge and ensures more graduates will have the skill to help keep ahead of pandemics.”
Dr. Stoner says he and others in the field expect the demand for public health professionals with IPAC training to ramp up as more organizations realize the prominent role played by health and safety during the pandemic isn’t going anywhere.
It’s not just about preparing for the next big emergency, either. Equipping tomorrow’s health leaders with a broader range of skills can help lead to immediate improvements in areas such as workplace safety - improvements that will also come in handy during times of crisis, Dr. Stone says. He notes that a broad range of organizations, from health care facilities to factories and warehouses to food processing facilities will likely be looking to tap the expertise of public health experts with IPAC knowledge to help them keep their employees safe.
“Workers need to be assured that when they go to work that someone is looking out for them,” Dr. Stoner says.
The specialization was developed in partnership with IPAC Canada, a professional organization based in Winnipeg. Zahir Hirji, president of IPAC Canada, says exposing public health students to the principles of infection prevention and control as they start their careers will help us prepare for future health emergencies.
For instance, early in the pandemic, hundreds of people were stranded on cruise ships and many contracted COVID-19, a result of poor health and safety protocols and an outdated design that allowed the virus to spread easily among passengers. Hirji says MPH graduates with infection prevention and control training will be in a position to bring their expertise to the table when it comes to deciding how to build safer cruise ships, offices, movie theatres and other shared public spaces. And having those safeguards in place will also make it that much easier to respond to the next public health emergency, he says.
“If we can teach these principles to public health students now, it potentially allows us to build better facilities in the future,” Hirji says. “It’s not just the hospital spaces, we can make all kinds of public spaces much safer for individuals.”
And as diseases change and new organisms evolve, it will become increasingly important for public health leaders to have a core understanding of IPAC principles to help respond to potential threats on a community level, he says.
One defining feature of the IPAC specialization is that students will do in-person IPAC training in hospitals and other health-care facilities. Typically, many MPH students to placements in public health offices and it’s unique to be able to work in an health care facility where patients are being treated.
The new IPAC program had a soft launch last January, with a handful of public health students enrolled in courses. This year - the first full year the new specialization is up and running - there has been considerable interest, with 16 of the 59 MPH students declaring they want to complete the specialization.
Eugene Lee, MPH’23, is one of the first students to have completed courses in the new IPAC track. As part of his training, he had the chance to complete an in-person training module at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, an experience he describes as one of the best parts of his program. Lee says that having the chance to shadow infection control specialists on the job gave him new insights into how complex the profession is and the day-to-day challenges that need to be managed.
“There can be a lot of moving parts,” he says. “Beforehand, I really had little clue as to the breadth of the profession.”
Lee says the IPAC training is so distinct from the rest of his work in the MPH program and that he believes it has better prepared him for a career in public health.
“The training helped me connect directly to an acute care setting,” he says, adding that he sees himself pursuing a career that incorporates the elements he learned during his IPAC training.
While Queen’s is the first school to create an IPAC specialization within its MPH program, Dr. Stoner says he believes it’s a matter of time before others will follow, given how critical the skills are to managing minor issues to major health emergencies. The COVID-19 pandemic has created polarization and led to intense public debate about the utility of masks and other health interventions. Going forward, public health leaders will need to have a greater understanding of how different health policy decisions will impact society and the population’s willingness to accept them. Dr. Stoner says graduates with IPAC training will be in an ideal position to make those evaluations.
“We need to find that sweet spot of science-based, legitimate strategies for protecting society from the ravages of infection,” he says. “Today, it’s coronavirus. Who knows what it’s going to be three years from now.”