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A Beacon of Hope: Leading OU’s pandemic response

A Beacon of Hope



As the Chief COVID-19 Officer at the University of Oklahoma, Bratzler has been a trusted leader throughout the pandemic.

In June of 2020, OU President Joseph Harroz, Jr. asked health administration Professor Dale Bratzler to be the chief COVID-19 officer for the University of Oklahoma. This was a time when the pandemic was ramping up, and different departments in different colleges on different campuses were trying to figure out how best to protect their faculty, staff, and students. Bratzler speculates he was asked to take the position in an effort to unite the three campuses (Norman, Oklahoma City, and Tulsa), each with its own set of educators and leaders. “President Harroz was quick to recognize the need for thoughtful policy implementation and unified messaging," states Bratzler. "We needed consistency and to be clear about what to prioritize." In his new position, Bratzler became a central hub for all pandemic-related recommendations. He would evaluate each one before sending it to President Harroz for approval and university-wide implementation.

Bratzler also recognized that recommendations and policies would differ between the campuses. For example, the policies on the Health Sciences Center campus (where patient care is involved) needed to be different from those on the Norman campus. Even though the pandemic has ebbed, the university continues to monitor all aspects—including the number of students infected, isolated, and quarantined. “On the HSC campus, we were vigilant about our workforce needs and safety,” says Bratzler. “This included making sure that we had enough masks and gloves for our health care providers and students across the campus.”

Once vaccines became available in December of 2020, Bratzler and his team decided to utilize HSC students to help deliver as many COVID-19 vaccines as possible. The College of Pharmacy and the College of Nursing students had a head start since vaccination training was already built into their programs. However, the College of Medicine and the College of Dentistry programs had no formal training in delivering vaccines. “I pulled together a group working with student leadership on campus to put (literally) hundreds of our students through training on how to screen people for vaccination, draw and deliver the vaccine, and enter information for post-vaccine monitoring,” recalls Bratzler. Within the first four months, nearly 50,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses were administered on the HSC campus. These clinics weren’t just for OU employees and students; they were focused on vaccinating the general public in the Oklahoma City metro area. In addition to events on the HSC campus, Bratzler and his team held multiple vaccination trainings and events on the Norman campus.

Bratzler is incredibly proud of how students were included in these events. In the Hudson College of Public Health, many students helped administer the campus vaccine program; this included coordination, wayfinding, registration, and numerous other roles. Bratzler also acknowledges the university IT team’s excellent job building the screening tool. He credits the team for ensuring that vaccination data was automatically uploaded to the Oklahoma immunization registry.

According to Bratzler, one aspect of the chief COVID-19 officer role that surprised him the most was how he “became the big spokesperson for COVID-19 in the community.” Given that he was conducting weekly media briefings, it makes sense that he has been called the Dr. Fauci of OU. During these briefings, Bratzler discussed findings from the most recent medical literature to ensure that the general public was up-to-date on the pandemic. “I realized that part of this was to discredit some of the misinformation out there, so I made a point of always providing handouts to the press and including references for them to check my sources,” says Bratzler. He commends the OU Communications team for setting up the briefings with live stream and then sending the recording to the media afterward. “Reporters could participate in the live stream and text questions to the moderator,” Bratzler notes. “That kept the media from coming to the HSC campus and allowed us to maintain physical distancing.”

His news conference experiences also provided great examples for Bratzler to discuss in lectures with undergraduate students in Norman and graduate students in Oklahoma City. “It was so easy to teach some of the concepts of public health because the students were able to draw upon what was happening all around us,” Bratzler comments. “Many of the basic public health concepts became real to them.”

When asked about the pandemic’s impact on the field of public health, Bratzler acknowledges that the general public has a greater awareness of public health right now. At the same time, he mentions the national shortage of public health workers. “I think we need to use this opportunity to train more public health students and provide basic public health training in other programs [e.g., medicine and nursing],” says Bratzler. Due to the pandemic, there is substantial federal and private funding for public health programs and initiatives. However, history shows that this likely won’t last. “One thing that worries me a bit is something called the boom and bust funding of public health,” Bratzler reveals. “Right now, we are in a boom, but eventually, the pandemic will fade, and we will likely revert to budget cuts.”

Improving the data infrastructure in health care is critical to withstand the impending decline in funding. It’s no secret that the existing public health data infrastructure failed during the pandemic. Modernizing this infrastructure will include connecting public health data systems with other health systems to better predict and manage future outbreaks and pandemics. “This will require careful planning on how we take all of the different data sources and pull them together,” says Bratzler. 

Bratzler also reminds us of the concept of the slow pandemic. Essentially, the slow pandemic refers to the chronic diseases (e.g., obesity, diabetes, and cancer) that kill Oklahomans daily. “Part of the reason I believe that Oklahoma had such a high mortality rate from COVID-19 was because of the unhealthiness of the population in our state,” says Bratzler. He emphasizes the importance of addressing chronic diseases and health equity issues across the state to ensure that we are more prepared for pandemics in the future.

When asked why prospective students should consider studying at the Hudson College of Public Health, Bratzler notes the long track record of excellence in education and public health that the college has. As the only accredited public health program in Oklahoma, the college provides a variety of training options in biostatistics, epidemiology, health administration and policy, occupational and environmental health, and health promotion sciences. The college is currently working to enhance online education courses and certificate programs. “I would be pleased if every medical and nursing student at OU came out of their program with—at the very least—a basic certificate in public health,” says Bratzler. “Public health knowledge is essential for health care providers to successfully respond to another major pandemic.”

When questioned why he chose to study public health, Bratzler recalls his early days as a physician working at a hospital in Tulsa. He was particularly interested in health care quality and practice guideline implementation. “I was questioning how we change the way that health care is delivered, and I realized that I needed additional training,” says Bratzler. In 1996, he earned a master’s degree in public health from OU. “I made many friends and connections, which is important in public health, and I utilized my skills in biostatistics and epidemiology to better understand and interpret data,” he says.