ICAP and Partners Set to Transform How New York City Prepares for Health Emergencies

October 8, 2021

Last week, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a bold new initiative to transform the way the city prepares for and responds to pandemics and other health emergencies. The Pandemic Response Institute (PRI) will be led by ICAP at Columbia, which is located at the Columbia Mailman School, along with its key partner, the City University of New York School of Public Health and Health Policy (CUNY SPH), and multisectoral partners across government, community organizations, industry, and academia.

The sweeping vision for the PRI—the winning proposal was developed by ICAP in partnership with CUNY SPH and other collaborators within Columbia University and the City—aims to address gaps in the city’s response to COVID-19, particularly in engaging and supporting the hardest-hit communities. That gap, exacerbated by limited coordination between the breadth of critical stakeholders, may have contributed to the magnitude of the impact of COVID-19 on New York City, especially in low-income communities of color.

“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, University Professor of Epidemiology and Medicine at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, and director of ICAP and Columbia World Projects, who is leading the PRI. “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.”

The PRI roadmap, which draws heavily on ICAP’s strength in building partnerships in New York City and globally, focuses on data collection, epidemic modeling, technology innovation, testing, training and preparing health workers, and crucially, reducing the health disparities and building strong communication channels between stakeholders and community members. Even beyond the moment of crisis, the PRI, with its emphasis on prevention, will remain active, working with New Yorkers to develop and deploy locally tailored interventions, information, and capacity, while marshaling expertise and resources from across the city and beyond.

“What’s going to make an institute like this successful is reaching people where they already are,” says Heidi Jugenitz, ICAP Global Health and Public Policy Advisor and a member of the PRI team. “The goal is to engage people through existing networks—not just our community partners, but also large employers, unions, community centers, senior centers—that have access to and interact with a large number of New Yorkers on a daily basis.”

While the PRI’s main purview is pandemics, its leaders say its investments will bolster the city’s ability to respond to all manner of health emergencies, including climate-change-related catastrophes like the recent flooding in wake of Hurricane Ida, which devastated some of the same neighborhoods that have been hit hardest by the pandemic. “The interventions we develop will not just apply to major public health emergencies like COVID-19 but also help support equity in increasingly common climate-related emergencies,” says Christine Hunt, interim director of Planning and Development at ICAP and a member of the PRI team.

First Steps and priorities

Already, the ICAP-led advance team is working to get the PRI off the ground—recruiting a director, defining staff roles, leasing office space. The headquarters will be in Harlem on West 126th Street with community sites in all the boroughs; additional pop-up locations will be created as needed. The city is providing $20 million capital costs; initial operating funding will come from Columbia University, including Columbia Mailman, the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), and Columbia World Projects, CUNY SPH, and corporate partners Cepheid and Amazon. An immediate priority for PRI is to embark on fundraising efforts to secure the operating funds needed to enable the success of this novel and ambitious effort.

Details of the PRI’s plan are under development, one priority is to identify and fill workforce gaps related to the city’s response to health emergencies, from operational support—getting people the food and medicine they need—to high-level analysis—epidemiologists, engineers, and statisticians who are linguistically diverse and knowledgeable about specific neighborhood needs. At the same time, the PRI will build capacity around data collection and sharing, working hand in hand with community partners, while identifying opportunities for technologies and innovations. Across all projects, the PRI will work to address racial disparities, promote equity, and improve access to essential care and services.

research collaborations

Not surprisingly, science is central to the PRI vision. Researchers at Columbia Mailman and across the University with CUNY SPH and other partners will work with the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOH) and other city agencies to identify priority areas for study. Research may involve utilizing computer modeling for insights into hospitalizations and deaths, scaling and testing systems for rapid-response planning and health information dissemination, and exploring priority questions like the impact of Long COVID—all with the intent of reinforcing capabilities to help with response and recovery while creating a more equitable city.

“Our cross-disciplinary research community at Columbia has a strong history of working closely with government, community partners, and industry to address local and global challenges,” said Shih-Fu Chang, interim dean of Columbia Engineering. “With the PRI, the Engineering School will offer our experience in areas such as development and deployment of rapid-response technology, medical devices, operations research, data science, and other relevant domains.”

This research will build on existing partnerships with the city. Throughout the pandemic, Columbia Mailman Professors Wan Yang and Jeffrey Shaman worked with DOH colleagues on a series of computer modeling studies to forecast the spread of the coronavirus. ICAP and the Center for Infection and Immunity led research studies in the City on diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines. ICAP also examined the disparate impact of COVID-19, including the SILVER Study among older New Yorkers and LEXICON Study among LGBTQ+ populations. “Columbia University demonstrated to us a high level of expertise that was unmatched,” said NYCEDC President and CEO Rachel Loeb in last week’s PRI announcement.

“As the virus transitions from pandemic to endemic, continued research, community partnership, and public health practice are needed to minimize ongoing health impacts and economic disruption. The PRI will help lead these efforts to keep New Yorkers safe from both COVID and other infectious diseases,” says Shaman, professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia Mailman.

An ICAP model

Notably, ICAP brings a long and successful track record of partnerships with governments, diverse organizations, communities, and corporate partners worldwide in developing large-scale interventions to build capacity for health emergencies from COVID-19 to HIV/AIDS. For decades, the global organization has worked to train and mentor tens of thousands of community health workers to take the services to the people and build trust and confidence in the health system.

The conceptual model behind this ICAP work is the same that now undergirds PRI. “Around the globe, we support countries in responding to pandemics and other health emergencies by engaging with communities in meaningful ways,” says Cristiane Costa, director of Strategies & Partnerships at ICAP, and a member of the ICAP PRI team. “That approach is at the heart of what ICAP does around the world. It’s our DNA. And it’s what we want to do with PRI.”

Looking ahead, the PRI could also provide a template for how other cities and countries prepare for pandemics and other major health threats. “We are committed to leveraging this powerful public health effort to make a measurable difference in the lives of people throughout New York City and beyond,” says El-Sadr. “At the same time, we are confident that this initiative can serve as a model for other cities across the United States and around the world.”