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Worth a Thousand Words: Pandemic Public Health Heroes

Thank the pandemic public health heroes at the UW who have helped guide us through a turbulent two years.

A UW Health nurse gets a vaccine circa late 2020

There’s not an element of society that the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t disrupted. The disease took loved ones away, kept us from our friends and family, forced us into remote learning and work formats, and shook our economy.

Throughout a time of confusion and isolation, the Badger community — and the state of Wisconsin, more broadly — turned to the UW’s public health experts and policymakers for aid. Carol Griggs; Yoshihiro Kawaoka; Nasia Safdar MS’02, PhD’09; and Ajay Sethi are just a few of the leaders who helped guide us through the worst of the pandemic. These faculty and staff members have used their varying backgrounds and expertise to inform a COVID-19 response that accounted for many pieces of the pandemic puzzle, including public safety, risk management, education outcomes, and mental health.

The UW is grateful to have such experts within its community to explore and offer solutions during extremely trying times, and to have excellent researchers and policymakers working to help prevent future crises.

Carol Griggs, associate executive director and director of operations, University Health Services (UHS)

As an expert in population and community health with an emphasis in higher education settings, Carol Griggs helped develop a safe return-to-campus plan for UW students, faculty, and staff while prioritizing students’ overall well-being and ensuring access to both testing and vaccines. “Honestly, I think that one of the greatest impacts on students’ mental health is really being on campus and having opportunities to engage,” Griggs explained in a UHS panel. “They are at an extraordinary period in their developmental stages. ... Just being back in person is something that they need for a lot of reasons: they need it socially, they need it emotionally, and they need it mentally.”

Yoshihiro Kawaoka, professor of virology, UW–Madison School of Veterinary Medicine

Photo by Jeff Miller, UW Communications

With funding from the National Institutes of Health, Yoshihiro Kawaoka is currently leading a team of researchers known as the Pan-Coronavirus Vaccine consortium. Kawaoka hopes to develop a vaccine that’s effective against a wide range of coronaviruses and their variants. “This pan-coronavirus vaccine is basically preparing for the future,” he explained in a recent On Wisconsin piece.

Nasia Safdar MS’02, PhD’09, professor of infectious diseases, UW–Madison School of Medicine and Public Health; physician and medical director of infection control, UW Hospital and Clinics

Throughout the pandemic, Nasia Safdar has been a frequent guest on the Wisconsin Alumni Association’s UW Now Livestream and other campus response panels. As a member of the team that treated the very first case of COVID-19 in Madison and a professor of infectious diseases, she’s provided important updates on community spread, vaccines, and variants over the past two years. “It’s not unexpected that we will see variants. ... That’s just the reality of how viruses evolve,” Safdar explained in the wake of the omicron variant. “We know what works against them. And vaccination still works for what is out there and is expected to work for what may come.”

Ajay Sethi, professor of population health sciences, UW–Madison School of Medicine and Public Health

An epidemiologist with a background in public health conspiracies, Ajay Sethi is an oft-cited expert on COVID-19 misinformation. Since the outbreak of COVID, he’s given more than 400 interviews to help quell pandemic fears and navigate public health concerns over masking, vaccinations, and shutdowns. “I’ve always incorporated some element of behavioral science in most of my research,” Sethi said, “just thinking about what types of behaviors may promote the spread of infectious diseases and what kind of behaviors can prevent their becoming a burden to ourselves and to society.”

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