Columbia Tapped to Lead Preparations for Future Pandemics, Other Health Emergencies

Stressing the importance of preparing for future health emergencies, including pandemics, New York City selected a proposal submitted by ICAP at Columbia to lead a Pandemic Response Institute—PRI—to transform the way the city prepares for and responds to emerging health threats. PRI, supported by the New York City Economic Development Corporation, corporate and academic partners, and private donors, is intended to help reinforce and diversify New York City’s public health infrastructure.

ICAP, located at the Mailman School of Public Health, partnered with the School of Public Health and Health Policy at City University of New York and a consortium of non-profit, community, and industry collaborators to submit the winning proposal to develop and manage the institute. Partnerships at Columbia University include the Mailman School of Public Health, the Fu School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Columbia World Projects, and the Data Science Institute. Other collaborations are being sought within and beyond Columbia. 

PRI plans to prepare for future emergencies by addressing gaps in the city’s response to COVID-19 and critical needs for access, awareness, and preparedness across the five boroughs. “The COVID-19 pandemic has opened our eyes to the critical need for strong and vibrant multisector partnerships to effectively protect New Yorkers from emergent health threats,” says Wafaa El-Sadr, MD, University Professor of Epidemiology and Medicine and director of ICAP and Columbia World Projects. “The Pandemic Response Institute will create an unprecedented nexus for engagement, expertise, and resources from across our city and beyond that will enable us to equitably prepare, predict, prevent, detect, respond to, and recover from major health emergencies.”

To prepare for threats that range from infectious disease outbreaks to climate-related health emergencies, PRI will develop best practices for responding to crises, which will include identifying innovations in technology and communications. The institute also will work with city institutions and community stakeholders to collate and analyze data, conduct simulations on the impact of interventions, and create forecasts of health, social, and economic impacts of public health emergencies, all taking into account social determinants of health and seeking an equitable response to such emergencies. 

PRI will focus on data collection and analysis, epidemic modeling, technology innovation, training, and preparation of the health workforce. The primary goal is to reduce health disparities and build strong communication channels among stakeholders and community members to share information and build trust. As the pandemic evolves, PRI, with its emphasis on preparedness, will surge its activities to marshal expertise and resources from across the city and work with New Yorkers to develop and deploy locally tailored interventions, information, and capacity.

While PRI’s current focus is on pandemics, its goal is to bolster the city’s ability to respond to all kinds of health emergencies, including climate change-related catastrophes such as the flooding that happened in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, which overwhelmed some of the same neighborhoods that have been hit hardest by the pandemic. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic has opened our eyes to the critical need for strong and vibrant multisector partnerships to effectively protect New Yorkers from emergent health threats.”

PRI builds on ICAP’s long and successful track record of partnerships with governments, non-profit organizations, communities, and corporate entities worldwide. It also builds on ICAP’s experience and expertise in global health security work around the world. The global organization has worked for decades to train and mentor tens of thousands of community health workers to take services to the people and build trust and confidence in the health system. According to Dr. El-Sadr, this framework will be key to the success of PRI and could provide a template for how cities and countries prepare for pandemics and other major health threats.

“We are committed to leveraging this powerful public health initiative to make a measurable difference in the lives of all the people of this great city,” says Dr. El-Sadr. “At the same time, we are confident that this effort will serve as a model for other cities across the United States and beyond.”


PRI Director Named

Mitch Stripling, MPA, is director of the PRI. He has served in multiple leadership roles in emergency management and disaster response, most recently at the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and previously at the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the Florida Department of Health.

Mr. Stripling calls New York City the ideal setting to design and build a public health model that successfully incorporates the diverse voices of the city in a way that will be emulated around the world. “We are one city, but we are also a city of hundreds of unique neighborhoods. If we can figure out how to respond in a tailored way for each neighborhood in a true partnership, that will create lessons for large and small cities alike.”

One priority for PRI is to identify and address workforce gaps related to the city’s response to health emergencies, from operational support—getting people the food and health services they need—to high-level analysis by epidemiologists, engineers, and statisticians who are knowledgeable about specific neighborhood needs. To build on existing capacity around data collection and sharing, PRI will work with community partners to identify opportunities for technologies and innovations that reach people where they are in existing networks, such as large employers, unions, community centers, senior centers, and other places that have daily interaction with New Yorkers.

Research is an important part of the PRI mission. Researchers at Mailman and across Columbia, at CUNY, and at other partner institutions will work with the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and other city agencies to identify gaps in knowledge and priority areas for study. Research may involve using computer modeling to provide insights into hospitalizations and deaths, scaling and testing systems for rapid-response planning and health information dissemination, and exploring such priority questions as the impact of long COVID-19.

As the infrastructure for the institute came together late last fall and earlier this year, Mr. Stripling described his vision for the institute and its potential to develop a clearer, more inclusive road to preparedness. “PRI is a unique pathway to not just learn how to respond to crises better but to prepare in a way that works directly with community groups, neighborhoods, and populations on the ground that are most impacted. This really requires a revolution in how we think about health response. It’s not just about doing tasks better. We must think differently about these problems and solutions. This doesn’t start in an ivory tower somewhere. It starts at the neighborhood level.”

The institute’s review of the COVID-19 response in New York City will include talking to the people and groups that have been affected to include their perspectives of the response and what will be needed in the future. “We will aim to establish a joint collaborative vision that will speak to the needs and the goals of the people who have lived through this pandemic,” says Mr. Stripling. “A response that focuses on the social determinants of health needs to focus on the whole life cycle of a person, not just when they’re sick, but all the dominoes that fall based on their actions and who they are.”

Mr. Stripling notes that most people would agree that the country fell short in its pandemic response. “More than 800,000 Americans have lost their lives to COVID,” he said in January, “and it’s evident why this happened. Foundational public health has been eroded for decades, and our ability to collaborate as a society has been frayed. The things that you measure in a health security index—how many hospital beds we have and how much money we spend on research, for example—can be off the charts, but if people don’t trust that they are going to be taken care of, all this does not matter. 

“A lot of organizations may focus solely on examining the data, but what we lack is an institute that has a broad perspective and a long reach. Having access to the diversity encompassed in New York City neighborhoods and vibrant civil society organizations as well as academic and corporate depth will put us in a unique position to both make the city an example of public health response and give our country lessons on how to do this better next time.”