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UKPH Dean Donna Arnett navigates pandemic, strives for a healthier Kentucky

By Hal Morris
UK Alumni Association

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.

UK College of Public Health Dean Donna Arnett

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 turn her attention to the college’s aggressive plans.

“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.”

An eastern Kentucky native, Arnett came to UK five years ago after serving for 11 years as chairwoman of the University of Alabama at Birmingham Department of Epidemiology. 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.”

Then came 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic, as the college was thrown headfirst into the battle against the virus 15 months ago.

Arnett is a member of the Screening, Testing and Tracing, to Accelerate Restart and Transition (START) Committee, which helped create contact tracing recommendations. Arnett recommended UK use wastewater surveillance on campus, which can reveal the virus’ presence in a facility.

“It is an effective way to identify where an infection is growing in terms of numbers infected by looking at the presence of virus in wastewater,” she says.

At the college level, Arnett says they were active early as well.

Faculty member Kathleen Winter went into the field immediately with the Fayette County Health Department and led contact tracing efforts for Fayette County for the past year and has now become the state epidemiologist.

Alumnus Keith Knapp ’75 ’05 was recruited by the state to lead the effort in long-term care and other congregate facilities, which has been one of the most vulnerable populations.

Arnett believes the mitigation measure taken by Gov. Andy Beshear helped Kentucky avoid becoming a 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.”

“I was appreciative the START team recommended we end in-person classes before Thanksgiving and send students home and 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 penned two op-eds: why masks were used and why they were important, and one regarding vaccines.

“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, the college was right there.

“Everybody jumped in. It’s been inspiring to see how people have risen up for the vaccine,” Arnett says. “Someone said, after they got the vaccine, ‘it felt just like it does when I vote, like I’ve done my part for my community.’ And I think it’s a great analogy.

“I’m really proud. 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,” she says.

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.

When Arnett arrived at UK, she wanted to focus on chronic disease and substance abuse 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 UK 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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