Dr. Fauci "is driven by research and data," a core component of the Harris view of public policy.
A photo of Dr. Anthony Fauci
Dr. Anthony Fauci receives the Dean's Award at Harris on March 4, 2021.

To Melissa Baker, MPP’05, Dr. Anthony Fauci personifies the principles she applies every day, the same ones espoused by the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy.

“He is driven by research and data. He makes the best recommendations based on the evidence,’’ Baker said. “I hear him say that and I think, aha, that is exactly what we say all the time at OIG.’’

OIG is the Office of Inspector General within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, where Baker is a team leader. Her job evaluating federal health care programs is enormously impacted by COVID-19, beginning with working on a survey early in the pandemic that identified critical PPE shortages and other challenges at hundreds of hospitals.

“I think about all the data we use as an organization and I think about all the potential data that was not used for this public health emergency,’’ Baker said, referring to some of the non-scientific claims made early in the pandemic. “It is always nice to hear Dr. Fauci speak – a consummate professional driven by science.’’

Baker is among many in the Harris community eagerly anticipating Fauci’s virtual appearance March 4 to receive the 2020 Harris Dean's Award. Fauci will talk with Katherine Baicker, dean and Emmett Dedmon Professor at Harris Public Policy, about his role as the nation’s top infectious disease doctor and President Biden’s chief medical advisor for the COVID-19 pandemic.

Serving over the course of seven U.S. presidents and credited with saving millions of lives through his work on HIV/AIDS, Fauci has long been prominent in the health policy world. He is Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, an entity within the National Institutes of Health with a 2021 budget of $6.1 billion.

But it was a year ago, as the pandemic began tightening its grip, when Fauci entered mainstream prominence, delivering clear and consistent science-based guidance on COVID-19, first standing beside then-President Donald Trump and later famously clashing with him.

Fauci fandom soared to such heights that bobbleheads were created.

Health Lab is one of five of the Urban Labs, housed at Harris.

That doesn’t surprise Dr. Rebecca Neusteter, executive director of the University of Chicago Urban Health Lab, which is part of Harris. She sees the impact of Fauci’s work educating the public and providing “smart and careful and thoughtful’’ advice to practitioners and policy makers facing realities on the ground.

And she appreciates his willingness to fight through controversy. Dr. Fauci’s commitment to science in the face of partisan efforts to ignore it have resulted in attacks from supporters of former President Trump, who as recently as Feb. 28 criticized Fauci at a speech before CPAC.

“To know that there are scientists who will allow themselves and their families to be put into the political fray is, frankly, a relief for all of us,’’ Neusteter said.

“The fact that over half a million people have died in this country is tragic. So much of it was avoidable, but I do often think that we’d be in a worse position without Dr. Fauci advising us in careful and thoughtful ways along the continuum of the pandemic.’’

The pandemic highlights the importance of and need for the Health Lab, Neusteter said.

Dr. Fauci in his office at the NIAID in 1984. Photo credit; NIAID.

One of five UChicago Urban Labs housed at Harris, the Health Lab partners with civic and community leaders on programs and policies to improve health outcomes. It strives to be nimble, to provide expertise and funding in response to partners’ emergent needs.

In the face of the pandemic, Health Lab moved quickly to help with contact tracing and PPE dissemination to homeless shelters, for example. When Dr. David Meltzer, Urban Health Lab faculty director, found a correlation between Vitamin D deficiency and COVID-19 cases, the Health Lab helped set up randomized controlled trials.

And in response to COVID-19 and the coinciding racial justice movement, Neusteter’s team built out work around 911 emergency response that was already on the table.

“The wonderful and unique role of Health Lab is that we sit right at the intersection of health, safety, and justice,’’ Neusteter said. “It became even clearer that we are at an inflection point in the country, and there’s a huge need to recast how we define public health and public safety.’’

Jacob Plummer addresses the crowd after accepting the 2019 Rising Star Award from Harris.

While hearing Dr. Fauci’s pleas in the media, health data entrepreneur Jacob Plummer, MPP’07, MBA’10, finds himself at the nexus of another policy conflict highlighted by the pandemic -- public health versus privacy.

Plummer is Head of Customer Success at Datavant, a data company whose technology makes it possible to assemble and share datasets from across the health care landscape – from doctors, hospitals, insurers, pharmacies -- in a way that protects privacy by blinding patient identification. Datavant, which acquired Plummer’s startup Health Data Link in 2019, has seen a surge of interest since the pandemic, including from the government, Plummer said.

Datavant also is a driving force behind the COVID-19 Research Database, a pro bono collaborative of institutions donating technology, health care expertise, and de-identified data. The database has 5 billion records offering visibility into 250 million people, 2.1 million of whom are COVID-19 patients.

“Public health leaders can do so much more when they have data, but historically there were tradeoffs between data and privacy, and with new software those tradeoffs can be meaningfully reduced,’’ Plummer said.

Understanding and explaining policy tradeoffs is fundamental to Harris, and also key to Fauci’s effectiveness during the pandemic, Plummer said.

“Harris teaches you to understand the policy issue, frame it and present it to the public so that there’s a broader understanding of policy makers’ decisions,’’ said Plummer.  “The Harris curriculum includes a lot of problems around collective action. How do you get the critical mass of agents to cooperate in the outcome you want?’’

Plummer points to vaccine distribution as a timely illustration.

“If you bring data together and you allow people to report on it, and people know their privacy is protected, then people will be able to advocate for themselves and governments will advocate for their citizens in a way that they just couldn’t do today without the data,’’ Plummer said.

Harris classrooms, labs, and workshops have been infused with COVID-19 discussion.

Dean Baicker will be leading a discussion with Dr. Fauci and presenting him with the award later this week.

That’s led student Linh Dinh, MPP Class of 2021, to re-focus her career interests from healthcare costs and accessibility to the social determinants of health.

Dinh worked in economics research and then digital marketing after receiving her undergraduate degree from Smith College. She came to Harris to switch gears, “to leverage my hard skills in a way to support community and for better purposes.’’

Paulina Zajac, MPP Class of 2021, also eager to hear from Dr. Fauci, has found inestimable academic and practical value in being at Harris as the pandemic unfolded.

After receiving an undergraduate degree in chemistry from George Washington University, Zajac worked at AmeriCares, a global health disaster response organization where her job included working on contracts with government ministries of health. She realized she could have more impact with a broader perspective, one including health, economics, and politics.

“This pandemic, unfortunately and fortunately, has been a great case study of how interconnected those three elements are,’’ Zajac said. “It has emphasized how difficult it is for public officials weighing what’s most important: Is it health or is it economic well-being?’’

Zajac sees COVID-19 implications at every turn. In a course she is taking now – Medicaid: Understanding the Public Policy of a Federal-State Partnership – she is analyzing how the state of New York leveraged Medicaid waivers to respond to the pandemic. In Policy Lab, she works with Dr. Meltzer, Ingalls Hospital, and the Ingalls Family Foundation in Harvey, Ill., to identify needs particularly related to social determinants of health.

Zajac long has been devoted to science. It is why she chose Harris and just one reason she admires Fauci and looks forward to his appearance.

“It was incredible, so important, that Dr. Fauci was able to keep saying the same message: We need the masks. The vaccines are on the way but we need to have time to go through clinical trials.

“Science is as real as it gets,’’ Zajac said. “I don’t know where we’d be in this pandemic without Dr. Fauci, the doctors, the scientists, the healthcare workers.’’

Registration for the Harris Dean's Award Ceremony is still open.