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Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

A number of U.S. colleges and universities say they've seen a surge of students who say the COVID-19 crisis inspired them to pursue the public health field, and crisis communication in particular.

Why it matters: The pandemic exposed the need for and challenges of well-executed public health messaging — particularly in a time rife with misinformation campaigns and polarizing politics.

  • Government officials have been both lauded and criticized at different turns for their public health messaging over the last year, most recently on confusion sparked around mask guidance.

"The public wants answers in real-time and there’s been evolving recommendations and that’s been really hard for consistent messaging," Greg Hoplamazian, associate professor of communication and academic director of Loyola’s University's emerging media program, tells Axios.

  • "You can be a genius researcher and have all the information that you want and know exactly what the truth is and then communicating that to the public in a way they will act on it is sometimes not as simple," he added.

The big picture: Public health graduate-level degree programs like epidemiology and health policy saw a 40% spike in applications between March 2020 and March 2021, per a recent report from the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health.

Colleges and universities have begun responding to the fast-growing interest in the field, several program directors and professors tell Axios. For instance:

  • University of Central Florida located a new communication campus closer to its medical facilities last year to reach more nursing and emergency management students, said UCF professor of strategic communication and director of graduate studies Timothy Sellnow.
  • Ohio State University began offering its health communication certificate program for undergraduates at the beginning of the pandemic and are seeing a higher enrollment for this fall than last year.
    • "I do think they have a better understanding of what [health communication] is and its importance now," due to the pandemic, said Shelly Hovick, associate professor who taught risk communication throughout the pandemic.
  • A growing number of medical students at Loyola University have enrolled in health communication classes in the fall. Hoplamazian said that's inspired by the emergence of viral videos of some doctors containing COVID misinformation and a general feeling of being unprepared to speak to patients.

Separately, several of these universities and programs nationwide partner with and study the CDC and the World Health Organization materials on public health messaging in real time.

  • The Biden administration recently announced it’s investing $7 billion to bolster public health infrastructure and job growth in the sector.
  • The CDC is also using $3 billion to create a new grant program that will help expand, train and modernize the current public health workforce.

What's next: Health and risk communication experts acknowledged a shift this past year to better prepare students for the politically charged responses that led to death threats and resignations from people in the field.

  • "Historically or traditionally, we never anticipated that pandemics would be such political issues," said Matthew Seeger, a health and risk communication scholar at Wayne State University.
  • "Hopefully we’ll get past this moment and we will return to a time where people will work cooperatively and in a very partnership manner to be able to address these concerns," he said.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with details throughout.

Go deeper

Updated 19 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Vaccines: CDC director maintains Pfizer booster recommendation for high-risk workers — CDC director approves Pfizer boosters, adds eligibility for high-risk workers — FDA approves Pfizer boosters for high-risk individuals, people 65 and up.
  2. Health: America's mismatched COVID fears — Some experts see signs of hope as cases fall — WHO: Nearly 1 in 4 Afghan COVID hospitals shut after Taliban takeover — D.C. goes further than area counties with vaccine mandates.
  3. Politics: Bolsonaro isolating after health minister tests positive at UN summit — United Airlines says 97% of U.S. employees fully vaccinated — Mormon Church to mandate masks in temples.
  4. Education: Health care workers and teachers caught up in booster confusion — Asymptomatic Florida students exposed to COVID no longer have to quarantine — Education Department investigating Texas mask mandate ban.
  5. Variant tracker: Where different strains are spreading.

Ousted Tennessee vaccine chief sues state officials for defamation over firing

Michelle Fiscus. Photo: William DeShazer for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Michelle Fiscus, Tennessee’s fired vaccine chief, filed a federal defamation lawsuit on Thursday, alleging state officials skewed facts and misled the public as part of a coordinated campaign to destroy her reputation.

The backdrop: Fiscus was fired in July after facing criticism from Republican lawmakers over messaging to teenagers about the COVID-19 vaccine. A public battle ensued over Fiscus and her job performance.

Sep 2, 2021 - Health

Israeli coronavirus vaccine booster data gives the U.S. hope

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Preliminary Israeli data shows that coronavirus booster shots quickly spike a person's protection against both severe disease and infection, suggesting that the additional shots could help blunt the virus' spread in the U.S. — although it's very unclear how much.

Why it matters: The Biden administration has said that the main rationale for its booster push is to stay ahead of any waning of the vaccines' effectiveness against severe disease. But slowing the spread of the Delta variant would be a welcome bonus.