How Do You Keep Students, Faculty, and Staff Healthy During a Global Pandemic?
For Melanie J. Bernitz, it all sank in on March 16, 2020, at 8 a.m., when she arrived at her office on the Morningside campus. It was the first day that Columbia University was completely remote because of the global pandemic.
“The place was empty and eerily quiet,” she said during a Zoom interview from her book-lined office in Wallach Hall. Students had been sent home to transition to online learning for the rest of the semester; staff and faculty had been told to report to work from home.
Since then, Bernitz—who heads Columbia Health, which is comprised of more than 150 medical providers, therapists, psychiatrists, and specialists dedicated to supporting the Columbia community—has been at the center of the University’s public health response to COVID-19. She was an early leader in pushing Columbia to adopt CDC recommendations regarding face coverings, hand washing, and physical distancing. As March turned into April and beyond, Columbia Health stayed open because some students were still living on campus or in the New York City area. Bernitz’s staff had started COVID testing and seeing patients with COVID infections even as new details and questions about the virus emerged.
'A Real Cross-Campus Collaboration'
Seated at her desk with family photos and Columbia memorabilia behind her, Bernitz gazed out her office window across the lawn in front of Butler Library to Lerner Hall, where her team set up the COVID testing center.
“COVID was this new unknown that I had trained my whole career for, as an MD with a public health background,” she said.
As Bernitz looks back on the last year and the countless task forces and working groups she has participated in—along with the University’s COVID Director Donna Lynne, Wafaa El-Sadr, the new Columbia World Project’s director, and many others—she is proud of several accomplishments.
Her team designed the COVID testing program, including everything from the actual mechanics of where they would analyze the test to the operation of the centers and the scheduling system. “It was a real cross-campus collaboration,” she said, “as was the contact tracing program, on which we partnered with Wafaa and her team at ICAP. Working with Wafaa and Donna has been my COVID silver lining. They are smart, thoughtful, caring, and always available. Together we have been able to debate, discuss, and, most importantly, get things done.”
Bernitz's team designed the COVID testing program, including everything from the actual mechanics of where they would analyze the test to the operation of the centers and the scheduling system.
Columbia’s data “clearly shows that the testing and the tracing programs have made a difference,” noted Bernitz. “If you look at our numbers, we are far below New York City’s numbers as well as those in the surrounding areas. The rapidity of our process has broken chains of infection.”
Her work has not gone unnoticed. In a recent letter announcing her promotion to senior vice president of Columbia Health, President Lee. C. Bollinger described Bernitz’s “unwavering commitment to our community” and her leadership of Columbia Health, which “went above and beyond in its response to the current world health crisis.”
Bernitz, who is 48, sees in this promotion an acknowledgement of the importance of health and well-being as an institutional priority. “There is an inextricable, bidirectional link between health and well-being and academic outcomes,” she said. “As we move forward and out of COVID, the promotion will allow my team and me to evolve this link strategically and bring in many different elements. Now we’ll have more of a platform institutionally to emphasize the importance of all these health-related pieces, which will promote personal and academic success for every member of the Columbia community.”
Her 'Innate Drive to Solve Problems and Prevent Them'
Bernitz attended medical school at University College London, where she is from, and arrived at Columbia in 1999 to start her residency at the Center for Family and Community Medicine. As she progressed through her residency and chief residency there, Bernitz gradually realized that what motivated her was not only working as a primary care doctor with patients, but also working in student health, education, and prevention. In 2012, Bernitz became the executive director of the student health service at the Irving Medical Center. Four years later, she moved to the Morningside campus when she became the associate vice president and medical director of Columbia Health.
Part of Bernitz’s shift from purely clinical into more administrative work involved her getting another degree. “I had received no training around the business side of medicine, so I decided to get a master's of public health in health policy and management at the Mailman School of Public Health, which was a fantastic program.”
Additionally, Bernitz continues to teach at the Center for Family and Community Medicine, where she is an associate clinical professor. Since 2006, she has taught in the Foundations of Clinical Medicine course, which includes a focus on patient interviewing, professionalism, medical ethics, and healthcare systems,.
“It’s one of the highlights of my week when I meet with my medical students,” she said. “I stay in touch with them after they graduate, and am often their go-to person for discussions about nontraditional medical careers.”
Bernitz 'is driven by a fierce commitment to justice and a well-placed perfectionism, which means getting the science right before setting the policy,' said Rita Charon, founder and executive director of the Division of Narrative Medicine at the Irving Medical Center.
“Bernitz possesses the gift of attunement,” said Rita Charon, the founder and executive director of the Division of Narrative Medicine at the Irving Medical Center. She has taught with Bernitz and acted as a mentor for her. “In a class of 12 students or a faculty meeting of 50, each person she addresses feels like the only one in the room. She has the brand of courage that lets her say things that no one wants to hear. It is a form of respect for truth. She is driven by a fierce commitment to justice and a well-placed perfectionism, which means getting the science right before setting the policy.”
This focus on tasks and efficiencies—what her husband, Bradley Katcher, calls her “innate drive to solve problems and prevent them”—has been on display 24 hours a day, seven days a week this past year. She says she is grateful that her husband can work from their home, north of New York City, and be there for their three teenage children.
Looking Forward to a Post-Pandemic Life
Still, she is looking forward to a return to normalcy in her family life. “The only full day I took off of work in 2020 was last August when I moved my son, Daniel, into his dorm at Vanderbilt University, where he was starting his freshman year,” she said. And not a day goes by when she doesn’t worry about her parents, who live in London.
When casting an eye toward the future, Bernitz knows that challenges remain. “As doctors working in this pandemic, we never predict more than two weeks out due to so much uncertainty, but we must be planning now for the next pandemic,” she said. “If we don’t come out of this with a strong public health infrastructure—on institutional, city, state, national, and global levels—then we have failed.”
'We must be planning now for the next pandemic,' Bernitz said. 'If we don’t come out of this with a strong public health infrastructure—on institutional, city, state, national, and global levels—then we have failed.'
But she is optimistic on that front and on vaccination plans. “The vaccine is huge,” she continued, “and as Wafaa says, it’s a race between the vaccine and the virus, and we want to make sure the virus doesn’t win. I’m excited for when vaccine supply outpaces demand. For me, that will be the real turning point, which will allow us to get back to normal campus life.”
Asked what she misses most? Bernitz paused and sat back in her chair. “Hugging. I’m such a hugger,” she said, with a smile. “I haven’t seen my parents in a year and a half, and I can’t wait to hug them.”