Everyone has a role in growing public health effort


Faculty and staff who have questions about public health can contact university public health coordinator Dr. Kristen Clark and the public health team at publichealthteam@iastate.edu.

Supporting the well-being of students and employees is a critical university priority that has led to increased investment in resources, programming and staff devoted to fostering health. That growing focus at ISU, like all public health work, depends on personal decisions and efforts.

"We all play a part on campus when it comes to promoting health," said Erin Baldwin, associate vice president for student health and wellness and director of the Thielen Student Health Center. "It's important to be aware and understand what we need to do as individuals."

Baldwin recently spoke with Inside about what faculty, staff and students should know about the university's public health focus in the coming year. Here are some of the highlights:

Listening and helping

Supporting mental health concerns and connecting students -- and colleagues -- with assistance they need is key to creating a culture of well-being at Iowa State, Baldwin said. Faculty and staff have many ways to learn about how to help, including a new toolkit for supporting student well-being and a variety of training options that includes two new programs launched earlier this year -- recovery ally training and Cyclone Support, a session on practical tools and practices.

Many of the same strategies for supporting students apply to employees concerned about friends, family, co-workers or their own well-being, Baldwin said.  

"You don't have to be a mental health counselor," she said. "It's about listening with empathy and connecting people with resources."

Student Wellness maintains a list of well-being resources for students. ISU WellBeing is a good resource for employees looking for resources, including available mental health services.

COVID-19 changes

With immunity levels bolstered by vaccines and prior infections and antiviral treatments available for those at greatest risk, the chance of severe outcomes from contracting COVID-19 are reduced for most people, and the university's less prescriptive approach to COVID-19 this year reflects that, Baldwin said.

"We learn more about COVID-19 each day, and we're thankful for the many new advancements and tools available," she said.

A new ISU COVID-19 website launched in May and includes information on vaccines, testing and isolation guidelines, including procedures for students who test positive and the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations.

Employees and students with COVID-19 symptoms should stay home. Faculty and staff who test positive should review the most current isolation guidance and consult with their supervisor, Baldwin said. In a memo to instructors last week, the provost's office provided guidance on classroom public health measures, including a required syllabus statement.

As announced in May, the university no longer publicizes weekly testing data. Positive tests of students at Thielen Student Health Center are reported to the Iowa Department of Public Health and count toward Story County data in the state's weekly report.

Staying aware

The university will continue to distribute free masks and at-home COVID-19 antigen tests at four campus locations during the fall semester: Thielen, the Memorial Union information desk, the Union Drive Community Center mailroom and 2270 Veterinary Medicine.

While it is a personal decision, ISU's public health team recommends following the CDC guidance that calls for wearing a mask around others indoors when the COVID-19 community level is high, Baldwin said. Community levels can be found online and are updated weekly. As of Aug. 18, Story County's community level is medium.

The public health team also urges students and employees to stay up-to-date on their vaccines, both for COVID-19 and later this fall for influenza, Baldwin said. An update to the COVID-19 vaccine also may be available sometime this fall, she said. COVID-19 vaccines are widely available from local health providers and pharmacies, and students can be vaccinated at Thielen. The annual employee flu shot clinic will be held later this fall.

"It's so important to stay up-to-date on vaccinations to add that layer of protection against significant illness," she said.

Baldwin said she hopes living through a pandemic will make effective prevention practices such as frequent hand-washing and masking more prominent during the height of flu season.

"When we all really focused on masks and hand-washing, many people reported having less illness. Flu season is a really good time to focus on washing your hands and could be a time to consider wearing a mask," she said.

What about monkeypox?

Monkeypox is a rare disease caused by a virus in the same family of viruses as the virus that causes smallpox. Its symptoms are similar to smallpox, but milder and rarely fatal, including a rash, fever, chills, swollen lymph nodes, exhaustion, muscle aches, headache and respiratory issues.

As of Aug. 15, nearly 12,000 cases of probable or confirmed monkeypox have been detected in the U.S., and the CDC and World Health Organization have both declared it a public health emergency. Monkeypox does not spread easily between people but can be transmitted by close, skin-to-skin contact with a person who has a rash or scabs, saliva, or objects or surfaces used by someone with monkeypox.

The best way to protect yourself from monkeypox is to avoid skin-to-skin contact with anyone who has a rash that looks like monkeypox, Baldwin said. See a health care provider if you have a new or unexplained rash or other symptoms of monkeypox.

For more information, see the CDC's monkeypox website or this fact sheet for teens and young adults.

Global outlook

Tracking infectious diseases takes an international outlook at Iowa State, a global community with students, faculty and staff frequently abroad, Baldwin said.

"We must have continuous situational awareness of what is happening across the world to help inform the campus community and proactively plan to support the holistic well-being of all," Baldwin said.

That's part of the reason Iowa State's created a university public health coordinator position, appointing Dr. Kristen Clark to the position late last year. Formerly a lead public health veterinarian for ISU's Center for Food Security and Public Health, Clark served as the university's COVID-19 public health coordinator.

Under a policy established shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic, all university-affiliated international travel must be registered with the risk management office to ensure proper preparation, including assessment of health protocols.

Before traveling domestically or abroad, it's important to review public health recommendations and requirements for the destination and stops along the way, and travelers should consider bringing masks, home COVID-19 testing kits and hand sanitizer, Baldwin said.

Public health situations and recommendations constantly change, but the public health team closely monitors these situations on a global scale. To ensure you stay informed on the most current public health information, guidance and recommendations to protect yourself and members of our Cyclone community, please bookmark and regularly visit the ISU public health website.