Dean of UK College of Public Health says state officials’ efforts against the pandemic kept Kentucky from being a hotspot

By Hal Morris
University of Kentucky

Donna Arnett makes no bones about her goals for the UK College of Public Health.

“We’re a very ambitious college with a very ambitious agenda,” says Arnett, the college’s dean since 2016.

The Covid-19 pandemic has done nothing to derail that agenda, just maybe sidetracked it a bit. But as millions get vaccinated and life begins to return to normal, Arnett can again refocus on the college’s strategic plan to be “a catalyst of positive change for population health.”

“We’re able now to restart some of our work that’s always done in person with community partners or participants in our research programs. That’s been helpful,” Arnett says. “Public health is a very collaborative field. We tend to be partners with other people on campus in putting together research programs. The ability to meet again in person and generate those research ideas, I think, is very important to our future.”

The college was thrown headfirst into the battle against the coronavirus.

Faculty member Kathleen Winter went into the field immediately with the Fayette County Health Department, led its contact-tracing efforts for a year, and is now the state epidemiologist.

The state Cabinet for Health and Family Services recruited Keith Knapp, a professor of health management and policy, to lead the effort to thwart the pandemic long-term care and other congregate facilities, the populations most vulnerable to Covid-19.

Arnett said she believes the mitigation measures taken by Gov. Andy Beshear and his administration helped Kentucky avoid becoming a pandemic hotspot.

“Our governor’s progressive stand on utilization of mask mandates, reducing the number of people allowed at restaurants, reducing the size of gatherings, the overall communication messaging about how we are in this together, I think, sent a real message that this is important for our community,” she says. “I think those measures really did make an impact.”

Arnett is a member of UK’s Screening, Testing and Tracing, to Accelerate Restart and Transition (START) Committee, which helped create recommendations for tracing contacts of infected people. She recommended UK examine wastewater on campus, which can reveal the virus’ presence in a facility.

The university has used the technique, which Arnett says “is an effective way to identify where an infection is growing in terms of numbers infected.”

The committee recommended that in-person classes end before Thanksgiving and students not return until late January. “I’m proud of us for making that recommendation because I personally was concerned about the surge that would happen after the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year holidays. In fact, it did happen. We had enormous numbers of infections in that period in the U.S. and the commonwealth.”

Arnett says the college also circulated two pandemic op-eds, on why masks are important, and one regarding vaccines, which at this point are approved for emergency use.

“When we heard the vaccines were coming, we put out a message early on explaining that the vaccines are not experimental. The methodology has been in the works for many years. We were ahead of the curve on trying to get the messaging out and the right messaging out about the safety of the vaccines,” Arnett says. “We were also concerned about how to message minority and other underserved communities because they are the most vulnerable and have experienced the most loss in our state. We’ve been working with the governor’s office to work on that messaging for vaccines.”

As the vaccines began rolling out earlier this year and Kroger Field was set up for distribution, “Everybody jumped in,” Arnett says. “Our faculty, staff and students jumped in and were boots on the ground, doing the work in contact tracing initially. I’m very proud that our college has had such a remarkable presence in the state in terms of this pandemic.”

And UK as whole has been instrumental in getting vaccines to where they are needed the most, Arnett says: “UK HealthCare has been very proactive in setting up these remote clinics and getting the vaccine to places where people are rather than asking everyone to access the stadium back when we had the stadium up and running.”

Back to the plan

As millions get vaccinated and life begins to return to normal, Arnett can again turn her attention to the college’s agenda while still minding the pandemic threats, which she says are here to stay in some form.An Eastern Kentucky native, Arnett came to UK five years ago after serving for 11 years as chair of epidemiology at the University of Alabama-Birmingham. She says she felt like UK was the best place to help take on Kentucky’s health challenges.

“It was important for me to return to my birth state. It’s a state where there are so many public health issues,” she says. “UK being the land-grant institution of the state and the flagship, I thought it would be a great opportunity to use my talents in the area of cardiovascular health here at UK and extend that throughout the commonwealth.”

When Arnett arrived at UK, she wanted to focus on chronic disease and substance-use disorder, conditions she called a “nightmare” in the state.

“How we build health in rural communities was a major focus. How do we address the issues of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease in our communities? The use of Extension agents in our counties has been an effective way to deliver education to communities,” she says. “Those were the driving things that I wanted to do when I arrived. I wanted to really build our research profile both at the college and in the broader university. I wanted to build our undergraduate training programs so it could have a larger impact in public health in the state.”

Arnett also points out that the College of Public Health has been active in improving cancer screening rates, particularly colon cancer. Over the past eight years, she says Kentucky has gone from 49th to second in screening rates.

Helping people understand exactly what “public health” encompasses is always a goal as well, Arnett says, because just about every facet of life deals with public health.

“We can span the science from really basic toxicology to things like how you communicate with populations to both educate and inspire them to have healthy behaviors. We also work in policy,” she says. “How do we provide economic analysis to the state to inform our Medicaid policy? We touch such a breadth of different disciplines that you could be a biostatistician major to a toxicology major to a health behavior specialist. It all fits under our college.”

“The great thing about public health is when things are working, you never hear about it because we’re keeping everything safe. When you think about food safety, that’s public health. When you think about sanitation and environment, that’s public health. We’re really foundational.”

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