Less than three weeks ago, all 9 schools and programs of public health in Massachusetts came together in a partnership with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, the Executive Office of Health and Human Services COVID-19 Command Center, and the Massachusetts Health Officers Association (MHOA), to launch a novel partnership to provide critical public health support to local health departments across the Commonwealth as they respond to the COVID-19 pandemic through the formation of a new Academic Public Health Volunteer Corps (APHVC). The APHVC includes Northeastern University, MCPHS, Harvard University, Boston University, Simmons University, Regis College, University of Massachusetts – Amherst, University of Massachusetts – Lowell, and Tufts University. In addition, the APHVC has also expanded to include the Community Health Worker programs at Northern Essex Community College and Holyoke Community College.
The newly formed volunteer corps, which is being co-led by Northeastern, Harvard, and MCPHS, put out a call for public health student and alumni volunteers on March 22nd and within 24 hours over 700 volunteers had signed up. To date, the volunteer corps has recruited over 1,700 volunteers from the 11 participating institutions. In order to align the volunteers with local needs, the MHOA conducted a survey-based needs assessment with all 351 boards of health in Massachusetts, which has the most de-centralized public health system in the country. This assessment revealed that contract tracing, language needs, virtual check-ins, public health administration, communications/social media, and phone banking were the most significant needs at the local level. In less than two weeks, a case tracing system was set up through Harvard, language and translation was activated by UMass Amherst, evaluation is currently being organized by Tufts, and an onboarding and training system was developed with Boston University. Each of the member schools and programs of public health have also identified additional subject matter experts to assist volunteer teams with a range of specialized public health skills.
The volunteer operations are being co-led by two DrPH students from Harvard and consist of team leads and a team of volunteers for each community. This structure not only organizes the flow of communication and accountability across the volunteer platform, but also enables volunteers to develop and exercise their own public health and leadership skillsets. Less than 2 weeks after launching the volunteer corps, over 300 volunteers have been deployed to assist more than 40 boards of health.
This demonstration of partnership across schools and programs of public health, state and local health departments, and the MHOA, combined with agility and rapid activation of students and alumni, is a model for other states in this time of need. The key drivers to success for this effort include identifying a lead individual from each institutional partner, engaging masters and doctoral students in leadership roles, identifying an organizational partner with connections to local health departments, and ensuring that each partner is willing to leverage their own expertise, knowledge, and infrastructure to help achieve the shared goal of helping local health departments.