How Dr. Ice keeps community informed about COVID-19

Dr. Gillian Ice serves as special assistant to the president for public health operations at Ohio University, working to keep the campus informed about and safe from COVID-19. Ice spoke about her experience in public health, serving in this role and her assessment of when the OU community can expect to return to normalcy.  

What is your background in public health? 

My doctorate is in biological anthropology with a specialization in aging. The particular part of anthropology that I do is called human biology, so looking at the interface between culture and biology, as well as looking at evolutionary perspectives that shape human variation. After I finished my doctorate at Ohio State University, I did a post-doctorate at the University of Minnesota and got a master’s in public health in epidemiology. After that, I got the job here [Ohio University] at the College of Medicine in the Department of Social Medicine, and June first will be the 21st anniversary of being here

What do you teach at Ohio University? 

What I’ve mostly been teaching in the medical school is preventive medicine, public health, epidemiology and biostats with also some stuff about gerontology as well as culture and medicine. Early on in my career, I had the opportunity to go to Kenya. I completely shifted gears from institutional research in the United States to go into Kenya and look at how the stress of the HIV epidemic, particularly caregiving, shaped people’s physiology from nutrition, health and stress. In the process of doing that, I started taking students and was asked by the dean at the time to oversee all of the college’s international programs. After doing that for a few years and talking with my colleagues, it was really clear that we were missing an opportunity to interact with the other health professions, with respect to these global experiences. So, I started working with the College of Health Sciences to do that …So the Global Health Initiative was born.  

How has this experience benefitted your ability to address COVID-19? 

Obviously, disease has no borders, and I’ve taken on a number of global health projects over the years in different countries. We often think of a situation like COVID-19 as being a purely medical issue or even a public health issue in that this is a diseaseIt spreads. instead of thinking about the cultural factors that shape why somebody would put a mask on, or adhere to public health measures or not … I think the thing from all the projects that I’ve done in different global settings is all of the project management skills that I learned that helped me manage this large project, in a sense, for the university.

How do we see the pandemic disproportionately affect certain groups? 

There are all of these disparities in access to the very fundamental things that you need to be well that get accentuated in a pandemic. One of the things that she [Sonia Shah] talks about [in a TED Talk we watch in class] and we have students think about is can you imagine if somebody from Ethiopia came to the United States and said, “you people just need to wear masks and you wouldn’t have a flu problem.” This was our exercise before COVID hit, and it just really became real because that’s exactly what happened. There was all this distrust around people saying wear a mask early on in the pandemic … I think a lot of us that work in global health or health disparities knew that this was going to come because it’s predictable. When we went on lockdown, who were the people that continued to work because they had to? They were people that were low paying, so they were put at risk. They didn’t have the resources to stay home. They didn’t have childcare. All of these things build up, and it was fascinating to me to watch people sort of pontificate on this like it was this new discovery. 

How has the response to the pandemic been from the Ohio University community? 

Overall, it’s been really positive. I definitely do get angry messages from every constituent; I’m either doing too little or too much. Again, I just try to do what I think is best and move forward, but, I do get a lot of really supportive emails and messages from people in response to my weekly updates. By and large, I feel fairly supported from faculty, staff, students and certainly the senior administration has been very supportive of me. 

How do cultural or political factors impact a person’s inclination to follow COVID-19 guidelines? 

I think a big central piece of this is we are a very individualistic culture, whereas a lot of cultures are more collectivist. It’s a really hard message to explain to people that it’s not just about protecting you, it’s about the person next to you. I think one of the biggest challenges for us in the United States is getting people to do things for the good of the whole and not the good of the individual. 

How do you remain confident in your leadership decisions? 

I try to get input from people I trust, people I know have the knowledge that I don’t have or have knowledge that I have, but I want to bounce off of. I do a lot of that. I bounce ideas off a lot of people not only here at the university, but different epidemiologists at different schools … Also, I’m not afraid of saying, “yeah, that wasn’t the best decision. Let’s figure out how we can revise it.” I’m not afraid of people criticizing me or people suggesting a way it should be done better. I think that helps as well. 

Is there any way of knowing when Ohio University may be able to return to a normal school experience? 

A lot of epidemiologists are predicting this will become an endemic disease. We will have it all the time and maybe not have seasonal spikes, but spikes periodically. I don’t think we’ll ever be totally done with COVID, but I think we’ll learn to live with it. I’m hoping that that comes by spring at the latest, but the challenge is coming back to the disparities discussion. There’s such global disparity on access to vaccines right now … until they have access to the vaccine, we are still at risk because those viruses are evolving. We’re always going to have this cyclical sort of thing. Hopefully, we get to the point where instead of having these giant spikes, it’s just a little blip.