Public Health Program Director Tekeyah Sears on the COVID-19 Pandemic

Tekeyah Sears, Ed.D., MPH is the program director of the allied health/public health programs at Manhattan College. 

Tekeyah Sears portrait photoTekeyah Sears, Ed.D., MPH, is the program director of the allied health/public health programs at Manhattan College. Sears designed the Public Health major that will start at Manhattan College this fall.

In late March, after New York and much of the country went into a shutdown, Sears participated in a Q&A on coronavirus published on

In early July, she took the time to speak about where we are in the midst of the pandemic, and the role that public health plays.

How would you evaluate where we are now compared to where we were in March, when we last spoke?
There has definitely been progress from the time everything was happening in March until now. We’re all adjusting to a new normal and we’re not sure how long that will be, in full capacity in a restaurant, or in schools. We’re all trying to adapt to new guidelines that are constantly coming out. You’re seeing cases in places that decided to open up early and were less stringent on their social distance guidelines – cases are going back up. There’s also the possibility that there will be another spike in different parts of our country. 

Can you speak about the work being done to produce effective treatments and vaccines?
Scientists and researchers are doing everything they can to develop a vaccine. Social distancing has helped alleviate the burden or transmission from one person to another. People are wearing masks and not able to congregate in large groups. These things have helped. Guidelines are clearer now than they were three or four months ago. 

There’s still so much to learn and epidemiologists and health professionals in general are trying to figure out what are the causes of the virus? What are the symptoms? How can we help alleviate them? We can’t eliminate the disease completely, but a vaccine will help, similar to what the flu vaccine does. 

We’re doing the best we can to reduce the curve, keep numbers low, monitor the disease and put policies in place, so people can feel safe walking, people can feel safe going to places and not worry about being around other people. 

How do public health professionals balance mental health — seeing family, close friends — during social distancing?
Sheltering in place does something to you. I have students who reached out to me saying, “I feel anxious, depressed, my mental health is being compromised.” From a public health standpoint, we have other issues we need to address too. People need to think about their physical health, and we also need to consider people’s mental health. Students experience persistent pain, persistent stress and all different types of emotions and triggers by sheltering in. 

Our interactions with one another have changed. That is something that we definitely have to think about and address. We need social interaction as part of our overall health. Jennifer Gullesserian, Ph.D., Rani Roy, Ph.D., and I were talking about introverts and extroverts and how each group experiences the pandemic differently (research survey). Extroverts are having a hard time, but I’ve spoken to people who characterize as introverts saying I’m having a hard time too, because I’ve been in the house and I’m struggling. 

This disease hasn’t just impacted us physically, it’s impacted us emotionally, socially and mentally and how we go about our relationships with one another. We need to make sure all aspects of our health are high quality. As public health professionals, we can’t just focus on one aspect of health. We need to focus on stress and triggers.

Why has the pandemic affected lower income and vulnerable communities more than wealthy communities?
We call it disparities in health. There are tremendous disparities in health based on age, ethnicity and geographic location. There’s a higher prevalence of disease in one group compared to another. Especially in minority populations, those groups have high rates of comorbidities: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, higher rates of obesity. 

We’ve seen many more of those health risks in those populations in comparison to other groups. When you have someone who has multiple diseases, they’re at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 because of the disparities which have already existed.

Low socioeconomic status has a lot to do with availability of resources at particular hospitals, in addition to the lack of access to care, which is definitely happening in urban communities. Unfortunately, because these disparities have already existed, we have to consistently address that. In addition, we have to ensure that we do what we can to reduce health disparities faced in urban communities.

Due to the events within the past few months, such as the death of George Floyd, racism was declared a public health issue. You’re seeing that racism impacts all aspects of health. It causes stressors and triggers which impact mental, physical, social and emotional health. Furthermore, there’s a constant disparity between certain groups and unfortunately, due to these existing gaps, you see a higher number of cases in minority populations.

Social distancing was critical to slowing the spread of the virus in the tri-state area. What more can we do now as case numbers are rising again?
Follow the guidelines provided by the CDC. Also, distance when you’re out, wear your mask, wash your hands thoroughly. Self care is also important – addressing your mental, physical, social well-being. Those are ways we can help ourselves. Getting information is very important, however sometimes you can get bombarded with so many messages, you don’t know what to follow. Sometimes, it’s OK to take a step back and evaluate where you are as a person. 

This is not going away any time soon. Check in with family and friends and loved ones. Make sure you’re healthy and your family is healthy also. We’re all going through this together. People have lost loved ones, have lost colleagues, have lost jobs. It’s not time for us to be divided. We have to be united by practicing social distancing physically, but also figure out how we can be united virtually, mentally, physically and socially.

What’s next from a public health perspective?
We have some time before a vaccine will be out. We need to make sure clinical trials are followed through and this vaccine will be a benefit and not cause harm. What we’re looking at is how do we go on and adjust to our new normal. What mechanisms do we have to put in place to reduce the spread and reduce the risk of spreading from one person or place to another?

If students don’t want to be in a classroom, we have to accommodate them. We don’t want to put their health at risk. It’s going to change how we think about everything moving forward. What I’m noticing is the grocery stores, the lines aren’t as long as they were before reopening. But now the stores are set up in a way where they are doing social distancing.

These next couple of months, we’re going to adjust to our new normal. We should continue to have clear-cut guidelines and have created better policies for how things are run. There are a lot of unknowns, but in a year from now, we’re going to be in a better place. That’s my hope.