Over the past two years, many of you have likely seen epidemiology Professor Aaron Wendelboe on the local news. His research on COVID-19 made him a popular guest to discuss updated case, hospitalization, and death counts—not just in Oklahoma, but also nationally and internationally. Participating in local and national interviews gave Wendelboe a chance to put some of his media training into practice. He notes that it’s not just about responding to the reviewer’s questions, it’s also about going into the interview prepared with the messages you want to emphasize and boiling them down to two or three points. “The key was delivering those points in a way that was confident but also humble enough to account for the fact that information was rapidly changing and being updated as we learned more about COVID-19,” he says. Rapidly changing information often made it difficult to predict what would happen next. “In the early days of the pandemic, I had to balance what we knew with what we didn’t know in a way that was helpful to the public, and it was certainly a challenge,” Wendelboe says.
As a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-trained epidemiologist, Wendelboe has been preparing for a pandemic like this for his entire career. “My goal has always been to bridge applied and academic public health,” he says. It’s no surprise that he was asked to be the interim state epidemiologist in March of 2020 at the onset of the pandemic. During that time, Wendelboe helped to develop the Case and Contact Investigation Center at the Oklahoma State Department of Health. This involved identifying a location, hiring thousands of people, setting up the IT infrastructure, and training supervisors and contact tracers—all while taking precautions to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Wendelboe was also asked by the governor to develop a model that could help predict how COVID-19 might spread and impact Oklahomans in different parts of the state. He recognizes that this work with the OSDH was a great opportunity to bridge his academic research with practical applications. Wendelboe also credits this time for helping him to identify the most current pandemic-related issues and most common questions from the general public. “The issues and questions that were on people’s minds made it clear that there was a lot of misinformation and uncertainty about the disease,” he notes.
In an attempt to counter some of the misinformation and uncertainty about the COVID-19 vaccine, Wendelboe has given dozens of lectures and spoken at numerous town hall events across the state. “It’s difficult to know what impact the information we provided at these town hall meetings had on getting people immunized, but I hope that the information was helpful to people trying to make informed decisions for themselves and their loved ones,” he says. In addition to speaking with the general public, Wendelboe continued to lecture to his students in epidemiology courses at the Hudson College of Public Health. Specifically, he set aside time during classes to let students ask about COVID-19 or discuss epidemiological situations they had seen on the news. In many ways, the pandemic helped students contextualize epidemiology in a way that was relevant and interesting to them. “I used the COVID-19 vaccine as an example when our class talked about the difference between association and causation,” says Wendelboe. “We discussed how a researcher could find out whether the vaccines caused myocarditis [inflammation of the heart muscle], providing an opportunity for students to talk about the science and also discuss their preconceived ideas about vaccines and some of the political issues as well.”
Involving students in research is especially important to Wendelboe. Before there was a known case of COVID-19 in Oklahoma, he convened a group of five public health students to design a tabletop exercise for responding to an outbreak on campus. “I was really pleased with their work, and it was published in a peer-reviewed journal really early on,” notes Wendelboe. He also acknowledges the numerous students from the Hudson College of Public Health who served in many different roles at the OSDH over the course of the pandemic. Some of his students helped with epidemiological analyses, and others became supervisors with the Case and Contact Investigation Center. In fact, the template for the OSDH weekly epidemiologic summary was developed by a Hudson College of Public Health doctoral student. “In everything that I do, I try to involve students to give them additional experience for their degree,” says Wendelboe.
In addition to his research at the college and with the OSDH, Wendelboe also works with community members and community-based organizations in the Oklahoma City metro area. During the pandemic, he aimed to better understand how different populations were impacted by COVID-19. Specifically, he wanted to know what services they needed for direct relief, as well as what services they needed to help with indirect impacts of the pandemic (e.g., access to food, transporta-tion, and domestic violence support). One of the communities that Wendelboe worked with was a Marshallese community in Iowa. Initially, there were very few members who had received the COVID-19 vaccine. By working with trusted community leaders, Wendelboe and his team were able to increase the vaccination rate in the community from below 40% to over 80% in just a couple of months. Yet, not all of his experiences were this easy. Wendelboe recalls an instance where he was working in an Oklahoma City metro community, and it took time to earn their trust. “They told me point blank that I look like a politician and that they didn’t really trust me,” he says. “I wasn’t offended by that, but I bring it up to highlight that we need to develop community partnerships and work with organizations and people at different levels within communities.” One of the goals of this work is to help trusted community leaders become spokespeople for public health.
When asked what inspired him to study public health, Wendelboe recalls being a kid asking his science teacher, “How do we know that?” It wasn’t that he didn’t trust his teacher, but he had a keen desire to understand how we know things. “When I took my first epidemiology class in graduate school, I realized that’s essentially what epidemiology is: trying to understand how we know what we know and quantifying our uncertainty,” says Wendelboe. Once he realized that it fit with his way of thinking, he shifted gears from pursuing a career in medicine to studying public health and epidemiology. “Public health is a balance between addressing immediate needs and future needs,” he says. “Public health is special because it allows us to impact more people with fewer resources.”