Karen Paradis-Hews, 45, of Liberty, was spurred by her sister's death from the coronavirus to pursue a master's degree in public health at Husson University. Public health schools in Maine and across the country are seeing bumps in enrollment during the pandemic. Credit: Michael Shepherd / BDN

Like many Mainers, Karen Paradis-Hews lost a loved one to the coronavirus. She felt a career change would be the only way to honor her sister’s death after some in her community did not take the virus seriously.

Paradis-Hews, 45, of Liberty originally planned to pursue a master’s degree in social work to build on her experience as a behavioral home health care worker. Now, she is enrolled in her first semester studying public health at Husson University in Bangor, learning how to reshape health delivery with a broader goal of doing advocacy work.

She is part of a trend of a surge of interest in public health programs across the country. Common applications for master’s degrees in public health programs jumped by 20 percent for the current academic year, the Associated Press reported. Those programs focus on how to address widespread health issues among populations, but also epidemiological practices that have become household terms during the pandemic, such as contact tracing.

“My sister’s death in June changed my perspective on everything. There are still people who think [the virus] isn’t real, and that upsets me,” Paradis-Hews said. “I know my sister wouldn’t want me to just sit and let this happen.”

Two Maine universities saw varied increases in enrollment. At USM’s Muskie School of Public Service, enrollment in the school’s public health undergraduate program increased nearly threefold, from 13 students last fall to 35 this year. At Husson University in Bangor, the number of students in the school’s undergraduate program increased only slightly from 101 to 113 students during that same period, but applications increased by 26 percent.

Erika Ziller, the chair of the Muskie School’s public health program, said it was hard to say if the pandemic was the sole reason for the increase in interest. The health care field was already projected to grow over the next decade. She wondered if the pandemic had made enrollment financially unfeasible for some or pulled women who make up the majority of the public health workforce away from school to take care of family members.

But Ziller said a “tremendous” number of applications for the program mention health equity and social justice as a reason to pursue public health. Many also mention the pandemic with a focus in epidemiology.

“They’re seeing the importance of being part of a solution for large, community-based problems,” she said.

Like Paradis-Hews, some students say the pandemic’s effects on their personal lives shaped their interest in the field. Sarah Farrugia, 30, a mother of two from Falmouth, is one of them. Farrugia said she originally planned to take a test to enter law school this fall, but the pandemic made studying and caring for her children impossible.

Sarah Farrugia sits at her working nook at the dining room table in her Falmouth home on Monday. Farrugia is one of a growing number of people interested in studying public health policy. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

She said the pandemic drove home how communities can shape public health and reinforced her desire to pursue work on harm reduction for people with substance use disorders.

“What I love about harm reduction is the potential for the community to get involved,” she said. “What’s put out there is what is taken care of.”

Michaela Schwartz of Presque Isle watched as the coronavirus pandemic strained hospital resources and closed the Canadian border, separating her from her partner. The lack of control and helplessness motivated her.

Schwartz, 22, is a biology student on the pre-med track at the University of Southern Maine whose ultimate goal is to be a doctor. In the spring, she will join the school’s public health master’s degree program to understand how to treat people on a systematic level.

“In a hospital, you treat some people individually. In public health, you treat people on a systemic level,” Schwartz said. “It’s bringing that awareness to the public sphere.”

The pandemic is also shaping curriculums. David Prescott, director of healthcare studies at Husson University, said students look at local and national case counts and hospitalizations and incident rates to learn about how the virus is spreading. The variety in approaches to the pandemic both allow them to think about best practices, he said.

Ziller said local health policies and executive orders might come up occasionally as context for broader health care practices. But reshaping the curriculum around the pandemic would be “exhausting,” she said.

“Everyone feels a little shell-shocked by [the pandemic],” Ziller said. “They’re living it.”

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