Dean Shawn Gibbs and his wife received a strange welcome when they arrived in Aggieland in April 2020. March had come and gone, taking any sense of ordinary American life with it as the country scrambled to address the COVID-19 hidden invasion. Gibbs had accepted his current position as the dean of Texas A&M University’s School of Public Health while lockdowns were still cascading across the nation. “Back then, we knew a whole lot less about this virus than we do today,” he said. “So, I devised a plan for how my wife and I were going to travel to College Station.”
The Gibbses chose not to fly, opting instead to make the move from Bloomington, Indiana, to College Station in one 13-hour road trip with two brief rest stops. “There was no one on the highways,” Gibbs said. When the couple checked into a local Marriott at 2 a.m., they found less than a dozen other tenants inhabiting the previously bustling building. “It was a very different hotel experience than our previous hotel stays.”
In the year and change since Gibbs’ trip, he has since taken the reins of Texas A&M’s COVID-19 response, using his experience as an infectious disease expert to synthesize the ever-shifting stream of information about the virus and deliver resources and guidelines to Aggie students, faculty and staff. With his leadership and the efforts of faculty members, the School of Public Health has led the university’s fight against COVID-19 from the ground up.
Bursting the Bubble
Before COVID-19, Gibbs specialized in industrial hygiene and cut his teeth on infectious diseases at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, where he led a team in charge of isolating Ebola virus patients. “My particular team was responsible for those patients’ transport, decontamination and wellness as well as providing protocols on personal protection equipment,” he said. As a founding faculty member of the National Ebola Training and Education Center, Gibbs learned firsthand what it takes to organize a team against an invisible foe.
Even with all his experience, though, the scale of the pandemic blindsided Gibbs as much as anyone else. “I don’t think anyone thought it would be what it ended up being,” he said. Before he and his wife’s journey to Aggieland, Gibbs was executive associate dean at the Indiana University School of Public Health-Bloomington. He remembers warning disconcerted faculty and administrators there about the COVID-19 threat as early as January 2020. Still, he never could have imagined he would be helping lead a university as large as Texas A&M out of a full-on lockdown months later.
Gibbs made clear early in the planning process to bring Aggies back to campus that the goal was risk mitigation, not total containment. “In our world, creating a bubble is nearly impossible,” he said. Though the National Basketball Association famously isolated its players in Orlando, Florida, to allow for safe postseason play, major universities did not have the same affordances.
At one point, Gibbs ran the numbers to roughly deduce how many COVID-19 tests Texas A&M would need to administer to create bubble-like conditions on campus. The estimate: 1.3 million per month. And that does not encompass the unprecedented control needed over student, faculty and staff members’ lives to ensure total protection. “It just was not feasible here at all,” Gibbs said. To help keep Aggies safe, the School of Public Health would instead have to facilitate a vast, multifaceted community effort with testing—and eventually, vaccination—at the center.
Dr. Angela Clendenin ’91 came from academic roots. Her father earned his doctoral degree at Texas A&M and founded the School of Health Professions at Texas State University. Before her mother, Dr. Marjorie Green ’67, became an English professor, she was among the first women to graduate from Texas A&M. “I have my dad’s science brain and my mom’s English brain, so that’s why I’m really messed up most of the time,” Clendenin laughed. Initially earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Texas A&M in 1991, Clendenin has followed an unusual career path to her current specialization as a public health communications instructor.
During her previous appointment as communications manager for the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Clendenin worked closely with Dr. Wesley Bissett ’97 of the Texas A&M Veterinary Emergency Team, deploying with the team to mentor students responding to real-world emergencies, such as the Bastrop County Complex fire and Blanco River Flood. The experience engendered in her a deep appreciation for communication’s critical role in managing public health crises.
Inspired to pursue a Ph.D. in agricultural leadership, education and communications in 2009, Clendenin focused her science coursework around epidemiology, or the study of disease spread, which she saw as a natural meeting point between public health and communications. “There’s an art and a science to it,” she said. “It bridges the gap between scientists and the public.” With COVID-19, she learned just how vital that bridge could be.
Going for Gold
In a September 2020 interview with fellow Texas A&M researcher Dr. Rebecca Fischer, Clendenin referred to COVID-19 as the “public health Olympics.” Asked to elaborate, she emphasized the worldwide dependence on—and scrutiny of—public health officials across the world. “We've been training for this all our lives,” Clendenin said. “And like the Olympics, those athletes compete on a very public stage.
“The last time we had a global pandemic of this magnitude was in 1918. People didn't have televisions back then. Most of them didn't even have a personal phone. Now we are responding to the next great pandemic in society, and people are seeing the victories that we achieve and the things that we're still learning in real time. And they're developing an understanding of public health like they've never had before.”
Texas A&M’s fight against COVID-19 has taken on a plethora of different forms across disciplines. Aggie scientists have conducted studies testing the effectiveness of potential treatments for COVID-19 patients. Students in the College of Education and Human Development have offered free virtual assistance to PK-12 students and parents navigating schoolwork at home through the Aggie Homework Helpline. Clendenin and Fischer have also taken part in a team developing mathematical models to be used in forecasting disease spread across the state, and Fischer’s health advocacy even earned her a place on Texas Monthly’s 2021 Best Things in Texas list.
For Clendenin, battling COVID-19 often had less to do with lab coats and more to do with boots-on-the-ground information gathering. Early summer 2020, when it became apparent that the virus was not going to disappear before students returned in the fall, she and her colleagues recognized the need for a team that could counter COVID-19’s local spread on a case-by-case basis. “We had a handful of public health students that we had worked with before,” Clendenin said. “We contacted them directly over the summer and said, ‘Hey, can you come up to College Station and help us out?’”
Those who answered the call found themselves working in the Texas A&M COVID-19 Operations and Investigation Center, established as part of a collaboration with the Brazos County Health District to conduct impactful COVID testing and contact tracing on campus and throughout the local community. Clendenin serves as the center’s co-director, leading a team comprised of former students and displaced workers who lost their job in the pandemic’s ensuing financial crisis.
“We’ve had people who were counselors, massage therapists and salesclerks calling people for contract tracing,” Clendenin said. Because effective contact tracing involves convincing a stranger who tested positive for COVID-19 to volunteer what would usually be considered private information about their day-to-day whereabouts, culling callers from these public-facing professions is often advantageous. After all, Clendenin explained, teaching the science is easy, “but what you can’t teach is how to build trusting relationships over the phone.”
Since 2017, one group of Aggies has practiced building those relationships specifically to aid public health. Led by Clendenin, EpiAssist is a unique learning program that provides Aggie students opportunities to gain applied public health experience by assisting with state outbreak investigations, disasters and emergencies, community health assessments and other projects. Though most EpiAssist volunteers were logistically sidelined from helping during the pandemic’s height, many still managed to serve Texas communities uniquely.
Early in the pandemic, the Texas Department of State Health Services called upon EpiAssist students to assist its task force in collecting vital reporting on vulnerable populations, specifically jails, prisons and juvenile facilities. “These are places that normally don’t have high reporting requirements when it comes to diseases,” Clendenin explained, “and suddenly, they were overwhelmed.” EpiAssist volunteers helped the state convey what information had to be reported, clean up existing data and standardize reporting processes to understand the COVID-19 situation among the incarcerated.
When the COVID-19 Operations and Investigation Center became short-staffed, former EpiAssist students were the first to fill the gaps. One former student, Oscar Hernandez Jr. ’16 ’20, joined the operations team shortly before receiving his master’s degree in epidemiology from the School of Public Health. “I was excited because it brought me back to the whole idea of why we study public health,” Hernandez said. “This is who we do it for—the people.”
As of now, when Aggies volunteer through EpiAssist, they must provide their own transportation and lodging, practically limiting their reach to an approximately 90-mile radius around Bryan-College Station. International students, who often do not own personal vehicles, often rely on rides from other volunteers—a structure that regularly fails to pan out. “Direct donations would allow us to expand our reach and give students more opportunities to make a difference,” Clendenin said.