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Covid is an opportunity to change US public health equity forever

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Covid is an opportunity to change US public health equity forever


“The problem right now is that it’s being talked about so much as a choice,” says Brunson, who points out that white Republican-voting men are particularly reluctant to get vaccinated relative to the rest of the US population. “Focusing on things that are choices takes away the spotlight from really severe access issues in the US.” 

One success story took place in Philadelphia, thanks to an effective collaboration between two health systems and Black community leaders. Recognizing that the largely online signup process was hard for older people or those without internet access, Penn Medicine and Mercy Catholic Medical Center created a text-message-based signup system as well as a 24/7 interactive voice recording option that could be used from a land line, with doctors answering patients’ questions before appointments. Working with community leaders, the program held its first clinic at a church and vaccinated 550 people.

“We’ve worked really closely with community leaders, and every clinic since has evolved in terms of design,” says Lauren Hahn, innovation manager at the Penn Medicine Center for Digital Health. 

By including community members early on, Hahn hoped, the program would give the people coming in for their shot the feeling that the clinic was made for them. And after their appointment, patients were sent home with resources like the number for a help line they could call if they had any questions about side effects.

“We want to make sure that we’re not just coming in and offering this service and then walking away,” she says.

Data needs to guide practice

Researchers say that having complete data on who is—and isn’t—getting vaccinated can improve the vaccine rollout and prevent problems from being obscured. Data gaps have been a problem since the early days of the pandemic, when few states were reporting cases and deaths by race. Though Joe Biden has emphasized equitable vaccine distribution as a priority, the CDC reports having race and ethnicity data for only 56.7% of vaccinated people. 

Not everyone wants more information to be made public, however. In Wisconsin, Milwaukee County executive David Crowley says there can be resistance to collecting and publishing data that shows disparate health outcomes among racial groups. “We have to say that racism has been a problem,” Crowley says. But, he adds, “Look at the data. It’s going to tell you a story right there.”

His county created a covid-19 dashboard that reported detailed racial data before many other jurisdictions in the state, Crowley says. It allowed the county to work with the city of Milwaukee to open special walk-in sites for residents in certain zip codes.

“We haven’t found the silver bullet in all of this,” Crowley says. “But at the end of the day, we know that data is telling a story, and we have to utilize this data.”

“Covid is what really catalyzed this type of analysis work.”

Dan Pojar, Milwaukee County EMS

Because the data is public, other pandemic response teams outside of government could use it too. Benjamin Weston, director of medical services at the Milwaukee County Office of Emergency Management, says making covid-19 data transparent and accessible helped community groups and academic researchers know where to focus their efforts.

The dashboard has also helped them see, in stark terms, that the communities hit hardest by covid have historically faced broader health challenges. After seeing that covid rates were high in places where people typically have cardiac issues, for example, the county decided to offer CPR training at covid vaccination sites. EMS division director Dan Pojar says he expects about 10,000 people to get CPR training that way.

“That’s an opportunity for us to work with other health systems to flow education and different initiatives into these communities,” Pojar says. “Covid is what really catalyzed this type of analysis work.”

It might get harder from here, not easier

Public health and equity researchers were not surprised at the pandemic’s disparate effect on certain communities, according to Stephanie McClure, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama. Health disparities along racial and economic lines have the potential to become a national and local focal point—in April, CDC director Rochelle Walensky declared racism “a serious public health threat”—but that tide hasn’t yet turned, McClure says.

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Donald ’67, SM ’69, and Glenda Mattes

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Donald ’67, SM ’69, and Glenda Mattes


Don Mattes started giving to the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT before he himself was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Since his death in 2020, his wife, Glenda, has carried forward Don’s passion for its work. “My wish is that no one ever has to go through the horrors of Alzheimer’s disease ever again,” Glenda says. The Matteses have also supported the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT.

Legacy sparks hope. An early key employee of Andover Controls who later ran the company’s European operations, Don visited six continents with Glenda during their 30-year marriage—often to ski or bicycle. “Don’s was a life well lived, just too short,” Glenda says. The couple made provisions in their estate plan to support the Picower Institute. After Don died, Glenda made a gift to MIT of real estate that established both endowed and current-use funds there to support research on Alzheimer’s, dementia, and other neurodegenerative diseases. Glenda is a cancer survivor, and the gift also endowed a fund in the couple’s name at the Koch Institute.

Great discoveries being made at MIT: “Don always said the best thing he got from MIT was being taught how to think,” Glenda says. “MIT is an amazing place. Picower Institute director Li-Huei Tsai and her team are doing more than looking for a treatment for Alzheimer’s. They’re looking for the root cause of the disease. I am also fascinated with the Koch’s melding of engineering and biology. The chances they are going to solve the cancer issue someday are very high.” 

Help MIT build a better world.
For more information, contact Amy Goldman: (617) 253-4082;  goldmana@mit.edu. Or visit giving.mit.edu/planned-giving.

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Investing in women pays off

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Investing in women pays off


“Starting a business is a privilege,” says Burton O’Toole, who worked at various startups before launching and later selling AdMass, her own marketing technology company. The company gave her access to the HearstLab program in 2016, but she soon discovered that she preferred the investment aspect and became a vice president at HearstLab a year later. “To empower some of the smartest women to do what they love is great,” she says. But in addition to rooting for women, Burton O’Toole loves the work because it’s a great market opportunity. 

“Research shows female-led teams see two and a half times higher returns compared to male-led teams,” she says, adding that women and people of color tend to build more diverse teams and therefore benefit from varied viewpoints and perspectives. She also explains that companies with women on their founding teams are likely to get acquired or go public sooner. “Despite results like this, just 2.3% of venture capital funding goes to teams founded by women. It’s still amazing to me that more investors aren’t taking this data more seriously,” she says. 

Burton O’Toole—who earned a BS from Duke in 2007 before getting an MS and PhD from MIT, all in mechanical engineering—has been a “data nerd” since she can remember. In high school she wanted to become an actuary. “Ten years ago, I never could have imagined this work; I like the idea of doing something in 10 more years I couldn’t imagine now,” she says. 

When starting a business, Burton O’Toole says, “women tend to want all their ducks in a row before they act. They say, ‘I’ll do it when I get this promotion, have enough money, finish this project.’ But there’s only one good way. Make the jump.”

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Preparing for disasters, before it’s too late

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Preparing for disasters, before it’s too late


All too often, the work of developing global disaster and climate resiliency happens when disaster—such as a hurricane, earthquake, or tsunami—has already ravaged entire cities and torn communities apart. But Elizabeth Petheo, MBA ’14, says that recently her work has been focused on preparedness. 

It’s hard to get attention for preparedness efforts, explains Petheo, a principal at Miyamoto International, an engineering and disaster risk reduction consulting firm. “You can always get a lot of attention when there’s a disaster event, but at that point it’s too late,” she adds. 

Petheo leads the firm’s projects and partnerships in the Asia-Pacific region and advises globally on international development and humanitarian assistance. She also works on preparedness in the Asia-Pacific region with the United States Agency for International Development. 

“We’re doing programming on the engagement of the private sector in disaster risk management in Indonesia, which is a very disaster-prone country,” she says. “Smaller and medium-sized businesses are important contributors to job creation and economic development. When they go down, the impact on lives, livelihoods, and the community’s ability to respond and recover effectively is extreme. We work to strengthen their own understanding of their risk and that of their surrounding community, lead them through an action-planning process to build resilience, and link that with larger policy initiatives at the national level.”

Petheo came to MIT with international leadership experience, having managed high-profile global development and risk mitigation initiatives at the World Bank in Washington, DC, as well as with US government agencies and international organizations leading major global humanitarian responses and teams in Sri Lanka and Haiti. But she says her time at Sloan helped her become prepared for this next phase in her career. “Sloan was the experience that put all the pieces together,” she says.

Petheo has maintained strong connections with MIT. In 2018, she received the Margaret L.A. MacVicar ’65, ScD ’67, Award in recognition of her role starting and leading the MIT Sloan Club in Washington, DC, and her work as an inaugural member of the Graduate Alumni Council (GAC). She is also a member of the Friends of the MIT Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center.

“I believe deeply in the power and impact of the Institute’s work and people,” she says. “The moment I graduated, my thought process was, ‘How can I give back, and how can I continue to strengthen the experience of those who will come after me?’”

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