NACOGDOCHES, Texas — From course content and format to internship availability, students and faculty members in Stephen F. Austin State University’s health science program are experiencing huge changes due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Students in this field are preparing for a variety of careers in public health education and health promotion in settings such as hospitals, governmental agencies, nonprofit organizations and work-site health promotion programs.

In their careers, they will be responsible for educating the public and raising awareness about local health issues. They also will address the needs of communities by assessing statistical data and using their findings to create health programs that tackle challenges such as flattening the curve during pandemics like COVID-19.

This academic degree provides a solid foundation for students pursuing health care careers requiring additional education: chiropractors, medical doctors, occupational therapists, physical therapists, physician assistants, professors and psychologists.

But before they can graduate, SFA’s health science students need to gain valuable experience through an internship that requires working at one of the many types of health care and medical sites drastically affected by COVID-19.

“That internship has been impacted the most out of all our courses,” said Dr. DawnElla Rust, professor in SFA’s Department of Kinesiology and Health Science.

“Of the 28 students enrolled in this course this semester, eight of them were able to complete all the requirements at their original sites,” she said. “However, 20 of them were asked to leave their sites — hospitals, clinics and other, nonessential sites — before their required hours and assignments were completed.”

Rust worked with Victoria Wagner-Greene, an instructor in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Science, to create alternative assignments for those 20 students, including writing a paper on COVID-19 and their personal experiences as health science interns.

Obtaining internship sites for the summer and fall 2020 sessions is also problematic, Rust said.

“Sites are not committing to internships, so we’re creating a range of solutions to accommodate individual students and ensure they can graduate on time,” she said.

Those solutions include writing papers, developing TED Talks and completing 50 hours of health science webinars.

Students and faculty members involved in other health science courses are adjusting to learning and teaching via online platforms like Zoom.

“I have never developed an online course, so it was all new to me,” Rust said.

But transitioning her face-to-face courses to online instruction also gave Rust the opportunity to tweak her course content.

“I tried to make each course COVID-19 relevant for the specific course and for the students.”

For example, the Core Concepts in Health course examines physical, intellectual, career/financial, sociocultural, environmental, emotional and spiritual health. In this course’s first online exam, Rust asked students how COVID-19 has impacted each of those health dimensions.

“Their responses were from the heart and amazing to read,” Rust said. “I have made a point to include stress-coping activities like ‘take a nature sit’ and ‘write a gratitude journal entry’ in this course.”

Rust’s Social and Emotional Health course focuses on how other people and our own emotions influence our health outcomes.

“Everything about this course has been tested,” Rust said. “The question raised is, ‘Can people and our connection with them influence our health from 6 feet away?’”

Dr. John Stewart, an assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Science, added an online exercise to his Epidemiology and Core Concepts in Health courses in which students explored the global geographic distribution of COVID-19 cases, examined COVID-19 etiology and risk factors, and learned COVID-19 preventive measures.

For his Environmental Health and Ecology course, Stewart’s students explored the association between COVID-19 “lockdown” orders and lower air pollution levels.
“This learning exercise also identified COVID-19 as one of many infectious disease agents potentially present in health care facilities and other workplace environments,” Stewart said.

Rust is encouraging her students sheltering in place with their families to be “health ambassadors” by sharing what they’re learning in these and other health science classes with their families.

“Many of my students have indicated that they have family members on the front line, so they are well-versed in the safety procedures,” Rust added.

Students also are equipped with strategies to teach their family members how to tell the difference between fake news and real news. Rust has instructed her students to use the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website at as their news source for COVID-19.  

As a “fix it before it’s broke” public health educator, Rust believes in primary prevention to help avoid disease and disability, such as getting enough exercise and eating healthy.

Secondary prevention focuses on detecting a disease early and preventing it from worsening, for example, controlling hypertension with prescription medication. Tertiary prevention reduces the negative impact of an already-established disease by restoring function, such as a heart attack patient participating in cardiac rehabilitation.

“I believe COVID-19 fast-tracked primary prevention and skipped to secondary and tertiary prevention,” Rust said.

She’s worried about a minority of the general public dismissing COVID-19 risks by not washing their hands, practicing social distancing and wearing masks.

“Some of the general public is obtaining their medical information from fake sources and not taking the risk seriously,” she added. “Tertiary prevention was not prepared for the need for medical equipment to restore health and reduce the spread of COVID-19.”  

Rust, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease 10 years ago, also is concerned for people with chronic diseases who have been working hard to control those conditions but, with the tightening of medical resources, are now unable or unwilling to seek treatment.

“These chronic diseases are progressing in people, which, in turn, makes those people even more vulnerable to COVID-19,” she said. “A patient with Parkinson’s disease is not categorized as part of the population vulnerable to COVID-19, but the anxiety generated by the spread of the disease doesn’t help the immune systems in those with conditions like Parkinson’s.”

Rust hopes that the general public adheres to the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and uses the pandemic as an opportunity to assess their own health and make improvements.

“This is the time for the general public to address health disparities and begin or continue healthy behaviors. Fix it before it’s broke!”