Preparing a Pandemic Response for All New Yorkers


Watch: In preparing for the next pandemic, “we need to think down the line,” says Wafaa El-Sadr. “How can we shape an equitable response that doesn't leave people behind, that takes care of all New Yorkers?"

The COVID-19 pandemic hit some New Yorkers harder than others, as disadvantaged communities bore the brunt of disease and loss of life, as overcrowded public hospitals turned away sick patients and as many found themselves suddenly without a job. Not surprisingly, the pandemic exposed deep racial, ethnic, and economic inequalities, not only in New York City, but across the country.

Two years into the pandemic, the City is determined to take lessons learned from this public health crisis to prepare for the next major health threat with the launch of a new Pandemic Response Institute (PRI), led by Columbia University—through its Mailman School of Public Health—with key partnership with the City University of New York Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy and a consortium of academic, community, government, research, and corporate partners. Wafaa El-Sadr, MD, MPH, MPA, professor of epidemiology and medicine, is a lead for PRI, aiming to establish this novel institution to secure the future of New Yorkers.

“We need to think down the line,” says El-Sadr, who is also director of ICAP and Columbia World Projects. “How can we be prepared to confront major health threats, whether they be a pandemic or a climate emergency? How can we shape an equitable response that doesn't leave people behind, that takes care of all New Yorkers? How can we build on the remarkable human and institutional capacity of this remarkable city?”

We spoke with El-Sadr about four key areas of focus for the Institute:

Improving real-time data collection and sharing

“No area is more important than communicating accurately and consistently during a time of crisis,” she says. “How can we collect data on what's happening in communities? How can we engage communities in helping us to collect information? How can we bring together data from a variety of sectors to help us make better decisions?”

Driving public health innovation

The Institute will focus on developing improved methods of communicating among stakeholders and new tools for diagnosing and predicting emergencies. “We're interested in enhancing our ability to project future health threats,” says El-Sadr. “How do we look at the epidemiologic data and anticipate what will happen in the future, so that we are appropriately prepared?”

Addressing uneven access to health care and social services 

“We have to make sure that people have access to the services that they need, whether they be health or social support services,” says El-Sadr. “There’s absolutely no way that we can respond to pandemics or other health threats without this keen attention to equity.”

Building trust on-the-ground

The refusal of many Americans to wear masks or get vaccinated exposed the deep mistrust that many feel toward government and the medical establishment. “Without trust, people obviously will not follow the guidance that they receive,” says El-Sadr. “We need to ask communities to tell us who are the people they trust most? Who are the leaders that they listen to, and will come to, in a crisis? What are the best ways of communicating with them? How do we use the right language and the correct communication pathways?”