How a Global Pandemic Became a Lesson in Health Policy

(Originally published in June 2023.)

On March 13, 2020, the Department of Health Policy established an ad-hoc committee of researchers, clinicians, and others who shifted their daily focus to advising and informing local, state, and federal leaders on the response to the global pandemic.

A novel coronavirus was sweeping the globe, shutting down businesses, schools, and transforming how health and health care was managed with thousands needing acute care and testing, and policymakers grappling with how to save lives.

Over the next 18 months, this group collected data from various sources to answer questions from policymakers and community leaders. Through a unique partnership with the Tennessee Department of Health, the group was able to track infections and hospitalizations in near real-time to help policymakers understand the trajectory of the pandemic and its effects on the health care system in Tennessee.mary margaret fill addresses the media early during the COVID-19 pandemic

As the availability of vaccines became more widespread in the spring and summer of 2021, the group pivoted to not only provide near real-time data on the state of the pandemic in terms of hospitalizations and resource consumption, but also the uptake of vaccination across the state by age group and region.

They also developed resources for the community that included guidance and information about the differences between social distancing and quarantine, and common questions early in the pandemic about the impact on children; this work was translated into multiple languages and distributed by clinicians at the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt and other community locations around the state.

In addition, these researchers shared their findings on television, on the radio and social media to inform the community about the pandemic.

Over the course of 2020 and 2021, the reports and data analyses the group produced were distributed to VUMC patients in both clinical and community settings, as well as provided directly to local government officials in several large Tennessee cities.

The group was also in regular, direct contact with the COVID Unified Command, a state-level group of leaders managing the state’s response. That group often hand-delivered some of the reports and findings to community leaders around the state.

Mary-Margaret Fill, MD, MPH, is a 2021 graduate of the Department’s MPH program, and the Deputy State Epidemiologist for the Tennessee Dept. of Health. She was closely involved with not only what the state was doing as far as response and disease surveillance, but also with our COVID Advisory Group, which was formed in March 2020 as the pandemic began to sweep the nation. She was often involved in the press briefings held by state officials, and traveled with Gov. Bill Lee and other members of the Unified Command to specific communities in Tennessee. In some cases, those visits also included delivering some of the memos directly to community leaders.