School of Public Health

Remembering Uncle Mark

Professor and family mourn the COVID-19 loss of dear relative known to many through movies, stage and TV

By Sally Crocker

Litt Uncle Mark
Dr. Litt as a child with her uncle

Dr. Dana Litt remembers a lot of special things about veteran stage and film actor Mark Blum, 69, a respected fixture on the New York acting scene for decades who recently died from complications of coronavirus.

His loss is different for Dr. Litt, Associate Professor at the HSC School of Public Health, because she wasn’t just a fan of his movies, plays and TV appearances; she was his niece in a close-knit family that maintained its connections across miles and throughout the years, no matter where everyone was located or what they were doing.

One of the most special times Dr. Litt remembers was the day, at about age 10, that she spent in Manhattan hanging out with Uncle Mark.

“It was always a special treat when I got to spend time with him,” she said. “He was the fun uncle, smart, witty and great to be around. We rode the subway together to an audition, and afterward we ordered New York City takeout at one of his favorite places. It’s very comforting right now to feel the support and to see on social media and in other ways how many other people loved him too.”

News of Blum’s passing – at a time when families around the world are especially concerned with protecting themselves and those close to them from the COVID-19 virus – has spread quickly in the days following his March 25 death, becoming one of the most-searched recent Google and Twitter celebrity stories of the week.

Online fans are remembering his work, his life, influences and spirit, while high-profile celebrities like Madonna and other recognizable names are mourning the loss of their dear friend and urging people everywhere to stay home and stay safe during this period when any of us could be most vulnerable.

“My family is appreciative and has been so touched by the outpouring of support from others, and while we are heartbroken that we had to lose my uncle, we also don’t want his loss to be in vain,” Dr. Litt said.

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Dr. Litt’s grandmother and Uncle Mark

“If hearing his story inspires others to stay home and be safe, if it has the chance to help change how people think about coronavirus and live their lives right now,” she added, “then perhaps something good can come from something very sad.”

Roughly two weeks ago, Blum reported feeling under the weather.  After a week with minimal improvement at home, he and his wife, a fellow actor and NYU professor, ended up seeking treatment at a New York City emergency room, where treatment advanced and Blum was placed on a ventilator. Tests confirmed that the two were suffering from COVID-19.

“It was very fortunate that there were hospital beds and ventilators available for them. As public health and government officials have warned, though, as the pandemic goes on, those hospital resources will be in shorter and shorter supply and might not be there to save someone else,” Dr. Litt said.

Sadly, there is no way at this time for a funeral or memorial service, so the best that family and friends can do is be there for each other from afar.

Dr. Litt’s 92-year-old grandmother, Blum’s mother, lives with a caretaker in the New York City area as does the late actor’s wife, while Dr. Litt is based in North Texas, and her parents and sister’s family are at different locations and isolating in place at their homes in Colorado.

“The hardest part is that we can’t hug and be there to support each other in person right now,” Dr. Litt said. “It’s harder to grieve together by phone, FaceTime and with our web connections, but we’re doing our best.”

She hopes that by sharing their family’s very personal story, it can demonstrate that COVID-19 is not just about numbers, it’s about real people and real loss.

“Whether the numbers are 5,000, five million or five, if the tragedy hits close to you, it becomes very real. This is most definitely a public health crisis. More and more cases and deaths are occurring, and the virus is not yet slowing down. It’s important to everyone to take COVID-19 very seriously,” Dr. Litt said.

When Blum and his wife married many years ago, he requested a giant display of fine gourmet cheeses instead of a wedding cake.

“I thought that was just the best,” Dr. Litt said.

So to pay final tribute from her own home to the dear uncle she remembers so fondly, Dr. Litt poured a nice glass of wine and brought out some very good cheese to give him a proper goodbye.

“He wouldn’t want it any other way,” she said.

Some of Blum’s acting credits include the movies Desperately Seeking Susan and Crocodile Dundee; numerous Broadway and off-Broadway plays; and popular television shows through the years, including Roseanne, Frasier, NYPD Blue, Miami Vice, Law and Order, The Good Wife and its 2019 spinoff The Good Fight, the Sopranos and Succession. He was a regular as the character Union Bob in the Mozart in the Jungle series from 2014-2018, and appeared in the recent drama series You. He was also Director of Hagen Core Training at the prestigious HB Studios, a nonprofit, professional performing arts training program in New York City, and has been highlighted in the past week by numerous young actors on Twitter for his mentorship and positive influence on their careers.

Litt Uncle Mark
School of Public Health

Responding to communities in need during shelter-in-place orders

In this video blog, we will discuss some community groups who are particularly vulnerable as a result of COVID 19 shelter-in-place orders.

We will also hear about how community organizations are quickly pivoting their work to respond to these urgent needs.  During this video we speak to:

Ms. Leah King
Chief Executive Officer
United Way of Tarrant County
Mr. Simeon Henderson
Southeast YMCA District Executive Director
YMCA of Metropolitan Fort Worth
Ms. Jessica Grace
Program Manager, Technology Enhanced Screening and Supportive Assistance (TESSA)
UNT Health Science Center at Fort Worth, School of Public Health

A PDF version of the slide presentation can be found at: SPH TCHD Health Disparities Video Blog

Covid 19 Shelter In Place
School of Public Health

COVID-19: Expectant parents manage in a time of uncertainty

By Sally Crocker

Covid 19 Hospitals AArthur Mora, PhD, MHA, and his wife are concerned.

With two young daughters ages 5 and 3 at home and a new baby on the way in just a few short weeks, the HSC School of Public Health Chair of Health Behavior and Health Systems says he and his wife are closely monitoring the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting strain on the healthcare system.

“Right now, we are doing everything we can to follow the guidance for keeping our family safe and well,” Dr. Mora said, “but a real concern for us, as with many other families like us, is the dwindling availability of hospital beds and resources as Texas and other states battle the spread of this virus and its devastating effects.”

Health workers on the front lines of care have also been hit hard by the disease, seriously impacting staffing. Physicians, nurses, EMTs and others have become ill or forced to self-quarantine after COVID-19 exposure.

In the U.S. and other countries, thousands of retired healthcare workers are being called back to duty, and just days ago the Texas Governor’s office took action for more support by approving certain categories of final-year nursing students and new graduates to onboard right away.

“Respirators are in short supply, as are hospital beds and intensive care space. In certain heavily impacted areas, workers are running out of masks and other protective equipment, resulting in adoption of CDC-recommended critical capacity measures.  During the most critical of shortages like this, healthcare providers may be forced to substitute homemade masks such as bandannas or scarves as a last resort if needed,” Dr. Mora said. “Elective hospitalizations have been cancelled and individuals with non-urgent medical needs are being asked to stay home and consult their personal providers, with the priority right now focused on treating COVID-19 patients and stopping further spread of the disease.”

During the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Dr. Mora was working and caring for an ailing father in Southeast Louisiana and experienced firsthand how quickly health systems can become overwhelmed during crisis situations. That’s when alternative care settings may be introduced, such as tents, trailers, or as is currently the case with COVID-19, with Navy hospital ships deployed to assist at key locations like New York City and the West Coast

Intensive care services typically run at about 70% occupancy during normal times, Dr. Mora said, so it doesn’t take long to fill the remaining beds in a crisis that is growing at such a rapid rate as COVID-19.

“Lower-risk patients with unrelated medical conditions could also be moved to outlying facilities like smaller rural hospitals for their care,” he said. “All of these are emergency strategies that can be employed when demand surges and suddenly exceeds capacity.”

Telemedicine services are increasing as safe stay-at-home measures, and individual provider offices are rescheduling non-urgent appointments, giving patients the option to remain in their car rather than sit in waiting rooms for necessary visits, and requesting that patients come alone to their appointments.

The most important thing citizens can do, Dr. Mora said, is follow the guidance provided by their providers, public health officials, those leading the crisis response teams and reliable resources like the CDC website (https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/faq.html).

For the Moras, with still weeks to go until their mid-April due date, the outlook is less than comforting, but they’re doing their best to manage the circumstances at hand.

They have also been challenged with developing a plan that considers out-of-state grandparents and other family members who want to be of help when the baby arrives.

“We are having some tough conversations right now because everyone wants to be here,” Dr. Mora said. “As parents, we have an obligation to protect our children, and we also want to keep our own parents and relatives as safe as possible. That means limiting our exposure to stay healthy for others we will come in contact with, including the healthcare providers who will be there for us very soon.”

“It’s a challenge for everyone right now, and public health authorities are warning that the COVID-19 epidemic is not expected to resolve very soon,” Dr. Mora said. “At this point, we are all just doing our best and dealing with it day by day.”

 

 

 

 

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School of Public Health

COVID-19: the importance of keeping up your social connections

By Sally Crocker

Family On Social MediaAs more kids find themselves homebound now that families across the country are practicing safe distancing to prevent the spread of coronavirus, it may be important to increase, rather than limit, screen time for children and teens, say two researchers at the University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth School of Public Health.

Professors Dana M. Litt, PhD, and Melissa A. Lewis, PhD, have long been involved in research projects related to the impact and influences of social media on young adults.

In this current uncertain and challenging time, they say, people of all ages, and especially the young, can benefit greatly from staying connected with others virtually while they are on break from doing so in person.

“There are risks to isolation,” Dr. Litt said. “Anxiety, unease and missing your connections with friends, family and others can take a toll on well-being. For many young adults, communicating online is a major part of their social life, and especially so when they can’t be face-to-face with friends.”

As a mother of two young children ages 7 and 10, Dr. Lewis is allowing her kids more opportunity for FaceTime, online chats, safe and supervised online games, and other virtual activities.

“The current situation is affecting younger kids too,” Dr. Lewis said. “In place of play dates, more families are adopting an online approach. Your children will follow your lead. Let them know the seriousness of what we’re facing right now and offer them alternatives for staying close with their friends in new and different ways.”

To make St. Patrick’s Day more fun for younger kids in her neighborhood, Dr. Lewis and other parents organized a shamrock hunt, where families created and posted handcrafted designs that could be found in one person’s window, taped to someone else’s garage door or displayed in another easily visible spot. To date, the count is up to 37 shamrocks found and more to search for when families take safe, social-distanced walks together.

Her kids have also called out “happy birthday” to neighbor friends while walking by, and have ideas for dropping notes in different mailboxes to brighten people’s day.

“While physical distancing is what’s being called for right now,” Dr. Litt said, “we shouldn’t underestimate the basic human need for social support and interaction. Not only does it enrich our lives, it also keeps us happy and well.”

The same goes for elderly and extended family members, as well as close adult friends.

Seniors Chat On Social Media“People want to keep older relatives and the most vulnerable populations safe right now, but they also miss each other. My family is setting up some 30-minute video chat times, so we can see each other and not feel so far apart as we work through this,” Dr. Litt said.

She is also planning a virtual brunch with friends to replace their usual weekend get-togethers, and recommends that dinners and other regular activities could be scheduled that way for the time being, to help friends and other groups keep in touch.

With the possibility of continued church, restaurant and other closings, families may also want to rethink this year’s Easter plans to take activities virtual, both professors advise.

“It’s also a good time to move book clubs online, for both kids and adults,” Dr. Lewis said. “Not only are they fun and engaging, but they can also be a great way to help kids keep up with schoolwork while they are at home.”

The two HSC professors, who have worked together for 10 years since first meeting when Dr. Litt was selected for a postdoctoral fellowship under Dr. Lewis’ mentorship, consider themselves not just professional colleagues in their research and teaching but also friends, and the recent change to social distancing has been challenging for them as well.

“We’re work friends, but we are also like sisters,” Dr. Litt said. “We’ve gone on vacations together, we know each other’s families, we are together a lot, so this has been a big change for us too.  But as we’re working remotely now, we are also working hard to maintain our personal connection and a social schedule that keeps us close.”

“In addition to all the virtual tools we have available, there’s also the phone,” Dr. Lewis said. “We still talk to each other several times a day.”

Family On Social Media
School of Public Health

COVID-19: making the most of hunkering down right now

By Sally Crocker

Covid 19So you’ve heeded the warnings about the COVID-19 pandemic that has much of the world in lockdown right now.

You have the food and essentials you need.

You are set to work remotely, if that’s an option.

You’re avoiding large gatherings and listening to officials who advise that social distancing is best for the time being, which may be weeks or even months.

Now what?

“There are risks to healthy living that come with isolation, uncertainty and changes to our typical, everyday lives,” said Scott Walters, PhD, Regents Professor of Health Behavior and Health Systems at the University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth (HSC) School of Public Health.

“We are all in uncharted territory. Our world hasn’t experienced something like this since the deadly H1N1 Spanish flu epidemic more than 100 years ago,” Dr. Walters said. “Nothing feels normal, and the way we’re being asked to go about our lives is unlike anything our connected, global society has been through before.”

The situation isn’t like those rare Texas snow days where roads are unsafe for travel and families stay home to catch up on movies, lounge in pajamas and enjoy a few days off.

“There can be a tendency to eat more, smoke and drink more, disengage from physical activities, glue yourself to the television, phone, computer or game device,” Dr. Walters said, “as well as drastically change your sleep patterns, maybe skip the daily shower and interrupt other normal ways you go about your life. All of this can lead to feelings of isolation, frustration and depression.”

In this time of uncertainty, there are coping mechanisms you can use as you protect yourself and help stop the spread of coronavirus.

First, stick to your normal routine as much as you can.

“Get up, get dressed and start your day as usual. Create a schedule of the things you want to accomplish for the day and the week, and write down some longer-term goals,” Dr. Walters advises. “Maybe you’re interested in painting or want to start a new hobby. Is there a book you’ve been waiting to start? How about that award-winning documentary buried at the bottom of your Netflix watchlist? This could be the right time to dive in,” he said.

Carving out structured office time is important too, especially if you’re transitioning to a remote work arrangement.

“People feel better when they have regular challenges and structure. When you engage in meaningful, focused work, you gain satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment,” Dr. Walters said. “The psychology around getting into your ‘flow,’ when you are immersed in an activity you’re skilled at or especially enjoy doing, allows everything else to fall away for a time, relieving stress and lifting your mood.”

Kids, too, can benefit from daily structure while off school.

“My family created a block schedule, so the kids have a variety of structured activities and less screen time. We have pre-determined times for being creative, and doing schoolwork and chores. Taking safe, social-distanced walks or bike rides together can make the day more fun and productive,” Dr. Walters said. “It does take work to keep up this level of structure, but the kids are happier at the end of the day.”

What about those who are missing social interactions with friends, coworkers and family members not living in the same household?

Try Skype, FaceTime and apps like Zoom and others for chats and online get-togethers, Dr. Walters suggests.

Try reconnecting with friends you haven’t spoken to in a while.

“People want and need to socialize,” he said.

On a long break, Dr. Walters once used the extra time to reconnect with old friends on social media. After scanning in boxes of old photographs, a task he’d been putting off, he posted several of them on Facebook, tagging friends he hadn’t seen in years, just to say “I’m thinking of you.”

“It was amazing,” he said. “People were so surprised and delighted to see those old pictures, and it led some of us to emails and longer online chats.”

Probably the best way to cope in this time of uncertainty is to think about the things you can do from home that make you happy and then do them.

“It’s important to remember that we will get through this,” Dr. Walters said. “Think about it this way, if you were to look back 60 days from now, what would you want to have accomplished during this time? Whatever that is, that’s what you should do now.”

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School of Public Health

HSC introduces new MHA Online degree

By Sally Crocker
Mha Online

Stephan Davis, DNP, MHSA, FACHE, knows how it feels to want to be a part of making change happen.

The incoming director of the Master of Health Administration (MHA) degree program at The University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth (HSC) was practicing as a registered nurse and just 21 years old when he entered a graduate program in health administration, after being inspired by the works of great American leaders and a professor who brought to life the vision that progress in the world takes both heart and leadership.

“The MHA degree, like many other avenues for advanced learning, is for people who want to take their experience and career to the next level,” Dr. Davis said. “They might be interested in moving up within their organization, taking on healthcare leadership roles of a local, national or even international scope, influencing health policy or serving others through public health administration. Whether the goal is to move up to the C-suite or advance your career in other significant ways, the MHA can help get you there.”

HSC’s residential MHA program has been recognized for its excellence in healthcare leadership education for several years, as one of the few programs in Texas, and the only program exclusively based in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Management Education (CAHME). The program is also active at local and national levels with the American College of Healthcare Executives, an international professional society of more than 48,000 top decision makers who lead hospitals, healthcare systems and other types of health organizations.

Now, with enrollment underway for the fall 2020 semester, HSC is introducing an online MHA, targeted to professionals in the healthcare sector who have a desire to build on their passions and make change in healthcare.

“Our program has demonstrated over the years that we can deliver high quality graduate education for the person who wants to do more and contribute to the healthcare field at an advanced level,” said Arthur Mora, PhD, Chair, Health Behavior and Health Systems at the HSC School of Public Health. “It seems natural that we would now want to leverage our successful MHA program toward an online learning option as well.”

U.S. News & World Report has called healthcare one of the fastest-growing industries in the country, due in part to advances in medical technology, changes in federal regulations affecting patients, hospitals and insurers, and increased healthcare demands of the country’s aging baby boomer population.

Healthcare occupations have been predicted to grow by 19% between 2014 and 2024, adding roughly 2.3 million new jobs across the U.S., with a strong outlook in management.

“While many people have healthcare experience, the industry trends now are calling for more leaders,” Dr. Mora said. “From the clinical nurse who wants to move up in management to physicians leading hospitals, more professionals are finding that a graduate degree like the MHA can build their competencies in new ways and make them more competitive in the workforce.”

HSC’s new online program focuses on building strengths in leadership, finance, project management, process improvement, data analytics and more. Applicants with at least two years of management or clinical experience in a healthcare setting, including hospitals, health plans, health systems and post-acute care, are likely candidates for the program. Classes can be accomplished completely online within three years, and the program works well to accommodate the often-challenging schedules of health professionals.

“Going back to school shouldn’t mean needing to leave your job to get it done,” Dr. Mora said. “That’s one of the real benefits of this new online program.”

Dr. Davis, who joins HSC in May, has found that to be very true in his own career. With a long background in healthcare, which encompasses direct care delivery, leadership for provider organizations, the insurance industry, education, consulting and serving on executive boards and task forces, he is now pursuing a second doctoral degree, primarily online at Johns Hopkins University. Like Hopkins, even with programs that are delivered online, HSC has local faculty who are available to meet with and provide advisement to students whether near or far.

“Graduate studies give you an edge and allow you to take your passions to the next level, whether the path brings you on campus or online,” Dr. Davis said. “Beginning this spring, I am looking forward to working with HSC’s current and future MHA students, along with alumni, as they pursue and continue to advance their passions as well.”

Mha Online
School of Public Health

Dr. Erika Thompson honored with prestigious early-career research award

By Sally Crocker

Dr. Erika ThompsonErika Thompson, PhD, MPH, was first drawn to science in the seventh grade, when her class watched and reflected on the docudrama film And the Band Played On, based on a book about people, politics and the AIDS epidemic of the early 1980s.

The HSC Assistant Professor of Health Behavior and Health Systems remembers learning that day about the outbreak’s impact and the public health responders and CDC epidemiologists who were on the front lines, searching to find solutions and save lives.

“The science of public health, and the way it merges with social justice, health policy and helping others, truly reflects discovery with a purpose. Even in grade school, it was easy to see the importance of this type of work,” Dr. Thompson said.

Today, Dr. Thompson is being recognized as a leader in her field, to be honored in March 2020 with the prestigious Judy K. Black Early Career Research Award from the American Academy of Health Behavior (AAHB).

Each year AAHB considers whether one early-career health behavior researcher is worthy of the Black award. The award is intended to recognize younger scholars who are expected to make major contributions to scientific knowledge and professional practice during their career. Since its inaugural year in 2006, only nine outstanding scholars nationwide have received this honor.

Dr. Thompson holds an MPH degree in epidemiology and a PhD in public health, along with graduate certificates in biostatistics and maternal and child health epidemiology.

Her research is in sexual and reproductive health, and women’s and children’s health, with a primary focus on HPV vaccination, HPV prevention and contraception. Her work has been published in more than 60 peer-reviewed articles, many of which are high-impact journals, including the American Journal of Public Health, JAMA Pediatrics, Preventive Medicine, American Journal of Preventive Medicine and Women’s Health Issues.

In receiving the AAHB award at the organization’s annual conference, Dr. Thompson will present a study she recently co-authored with HSC research colleagues Dr. Dana Litt, Dr. Stacey Griner and Dr. Melissa Lewis on risks of alcohol-exposed pregnancies related to heavy-episodic drinking and contraceptive use among women ages 18-20.

“Since Dr. Thompson joined the School of Public Health faculty in 2018, I have been impressed with her work and enthusiasm as a health behavior scientist,” said Dr. Dennis Thombs, SPH Dean. “She has led several externally-funded research projects of high importance, including evaluation of a child sexual abuse prevention program, a systems examination of family homelessness and other projects related to childhood education. She recently received National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding to examine contraceptive use among women experiencing homelessness, and her success as an early-career faculty member truly exemplifies her dedication to the field.”

As Director of the HSC’s MPH Maternal and Child Health program, teaching and community engagement are also a big part of Dr. Thompson’s work.

“The most rewarding part of what I do is collaborate with phenomenal community members and colleagues to try to solve public health problems, along with helping to train public health students who will be assuming those types of roles in the near future,” she said.

Mentors and role models can be key in career development and finding your path, Dr. Thompson believes, as evidenced by those who have influenced and encouraged her own direction over the years.

Especially in a world where women represent less than 30% of researchers, science is not always the career choice among girls and women. The strength of one’s social networks and access to champions and guides are important.

From that seventh grade science teacher, her professors, colleagues and research collaborators over the years to her own mother, a longtime educator and soon-to-retire elementary principal, Dr. Thompson values the advice and lessons she’s gained from each one. Her mom, in fact, was her own fifth grade teacher, with a way of making learning experiences both applied and fun.

“She once transformed the classroom into a rainforest to talk about the eco system,” Dr. Thompson said. “In my own teaching, I often try to channel that type of creativity and consider how she would approach it.”

“I feel fortunate in having known many strong, successful female role models along the way who have made me feel like, yes, I can do this,” Dr. Thompson said. “I am very grateful for the opportunities to learn from them, because the job we do in public health is about working with good people together as a team.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Erika Thompson