In May 2020, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was gaining steam in the United States, Shawn Gibbs, PhD, MBA, CIH, took his position as dean of the Texas A&M University School of Public Health. At the time of his arrival from Indiana, most of the campus community was working from home and attending class online. Physical distancing and wearing masks in public were relatively new practices for most of us then, but for Gibbs, these concepts were common in his line of work.
As an industrial hygienist, Gibbs has dedicated his career to researching, training and influencing policy related to disrupting the transmission of highly infectious diseases. During the 2014-2016 Ebola virus disease outbreak in West Africa, Gibbs was part of the Nebraska Biocontainment Unit and National Ebola Training and Education Center funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In that role, he responded to patients with Ebola virus disease in the United States, and he helped to determine policies, procedures and best practices for the nation’s response to the virus.
Gibbs has a vitae chalk full of respected research and impressive experience. But if you’d have asked his teenage self where he saw his life going, leading response to a global pandemic would not have been his first answer.
“I was the first person in my family to graduate from college,” Gibbs said. “I never planned to go to graduate school and knew nothing about public health. Exploration is what got me into it.”
After graduating from The Ohio State University with a bachelor’s degree in biology, Gibbs worked as a contractor of the United States Environmental Protection Agency. This job led him to graduate school, studying transmission of airborne pathogens off agricultural feed lots.
“At the time, I thought, ‘If I don’t use my tuition benefit my employer provides, then I’m not getting my full salary.’ So, I enrolled in a few courses at the University of Cincinnati, and I enjoyed it,” Gibbs said. As he approached the end of his master’s program in environmental engineering, a professor suggested furthering his education. “He said, ‘You are doing very well. You should consider staying on for a PhD.’ So I did. Later in discussions with that same faculty mentor, he said, ‘Everything you’re interested in is public health, let’s add some public health courses to your plan of study,’ and that’s what led me into the field of public health and my career.”
First days at Texas A&M
Although his official first day at Texas A&M was May 1, Gibbs began working with the university on COVID-19 matters soon after he accepted the position. He was also quickly invited to join the Southeastern Conference (SEC) Medical Task Force for COVID-19, a group of health care professionals who provide counsel to the SEC for safe student athletic activities.
“Indiana University had already gone fully remote due to the pandemic, so leadership was gracious in letting me go ahead and move down here,” Gibbs said. “My wife and I drove down in April and spent our first week in a hotel while we bought our house.”
Gibbs hit the ground running with Texas A&M’s protection strategy group to outline a plan for minimizing the spread of COVID-19 on campus.
“We didn’t know much about COVID-19 at the time, but we knew it was a coronavirus and could extrapolate what we knew about other coronaviruses,” Gibbs said. “When I first got here, there were a lot of people offering their silver bullet. Several companies were pitching systems to clean the virus out of the air by installing various disinfectant technologies in the duct work. I did the math and found that if we ran our systems at the contact times those companies were proposing, it would actually be detrimental to removing the virus from rooms quickly, which was one of the more important elements.”
Instead, Gibbs and the group developed a multi-pronged approach aimed at reducing the amount of the virus that could get into the environment by minimizing the number of people per room and requiring everyone to wear masks. If the virus did get in, their aim was to get it out quickly. They increased air changes per hour with increases in filtration and made environmental conditions less hospitable for the virus by increasing the air temperature and relative humidity.
“We cannot create a bubble. A COVID-free environment doesn’t exist,” Gibbs said. “What we can do is reduce risks and manage the spread as best we can. The pandemic is going to evolve, and we have to evolve with it. Remember that back in February 2020, one case of COVID-19 caused panic. Now, we would be thrilled if there was only one case in the community.”
An evolving pandemic
In December 2020, Gibbs was appointed to lead the university’s COVID-19 response.
“His extraordinary knowledge and expertise have been essential to the success of our efforts so far, and I have great confidence that his collaborative leadership will help overcome any challenges that may arise in the future,” then-Texas A&M University President Michael K. Young said in the announcement.
With this new responsibility, Gibbs is working with key administrators to safely and responsibly advance the university’s mission of education and research in this continually evolving environment.
He said the biggest lesson he’s learned during this pandemic is the importance of communication. The term “social distancing,” for example, has unintentionally led millions of people to feel socially isolated.
“What we the public health experts meant by social distancing was socializing with distance. Now, nearly a year into the pandemic, people are starting to feel the risk of being exposed to the virus is worth being with family and friends. We’ve seen that in the surge of cases after the holidays. We’ve switched to saying ‘physical distancing’ because we want people to be able to get that social interaction without increasing their risks.”
To help support students’ need for connection, university leadership is aiming to provide more social outlets for students in safer environments with enforced physical distancing and face coverings. The great thing, Gibbs said, is that the weather in Texas is in our favor.
“Ultraviolet radiation kills the COVID-19 virus quickly,” Gibbs said. “And it doesn’t survive long in temperatures above 72 degrees. I encourage people to go outdoors, to go for walks with friends while maintaining a safe distance and wearing masks when closer together. With more distance and lower capacity, we’ve been able to have fans at Aggie football games with no evidence of COVID-19 transmission.”
Students, faculty and staff in Bryan-College Station are encouraged to get tested every couple of weeks at free COVID-19 testing sites around campus. The university will also be doing seven testing pushes in Bryan-College Station over the course of the semester where there will be increased testing capacity. Additionally, the COVID-19 Investigation Operations Center at Texas A&M Health is fully staffed and has conducted thousands of case investigations and contract tracing in the Brazos Valley.
“I am extremely happy to be here at Texas A&M and can’t speak highly enough of our students, faculty and staff,” Gibbs said. “About a third of our faculty at the School of Public Health have pivoted to COVID-19 response efforts to help our university, our community and our state navigate the pandemic. We are constantly in need of volunteers to help with testing logistics, and anyone can volunteer their time. Tons of our students, staff and faculty have volunteered for testing events, including the most recent return to spring push; my wife and I have volunteered at six testing events and plan to do more. I was there with them, collecting saliva, wiping down tables and directing traffic. They are all working very hard.”
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