A high-impact internship
Photos by Evan Krape August 28, 2020
Meilyn Farnell’s summer job is combatting New York’s coronavirus crisis
Internships aren’t typically a matter of life and death. Keeping people alive is rarely part of the job description.
Unless, of course, you’re working for the high-profile leader of a health department that became the epicenter of the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis.
This is reality for Meilyn Farnell, rising Honors senior at the University of Delaware studying biological sciences and public policy. As an aspiring physician, she wanted a behind-the-scenes look into the legislative side of the medical world. So, through a new Summer Internship Program — offered through the Biden Institute within UD’s Joseph R. Biden, Jr. School of Public Policy and Administration — she secured a position reporting directly to Dr. Howard Zucker, health commissioner for the state of New York. In this role, which will continue indefinitely into the fall semester, she thought she would be analyzing data and monitoring bills related to any number of topics: obesity, vaping, medical marijuana. Then came the virus.
“The work does get a little crazy,” said the Ambler, Pennsylvania, native “You can go down these rabbit holes researching one solution for hours and hours, and it can be exhausting. But I always come back to the bigger picture: I have this amazing opportunity to help at a very high level. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Farnell’s boss, the possible inspiration for the early-90s medical drama Doogie Howser, M.D., has been called the “most important person in New York who most New Yorkers never heard of.” As the state’s chief physician, Zucker oversees the entire public healthcare workforce, and he has spearheaded emergency responses to AIDS, Ebola, Zika and the opioid epidemic. Now, he’s serving as Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s right-hand man in developing strategies to combat COVID-19.
“I speak to him over the phone weekly, if not more,” Farnell said. “Every time, I can hear how overworked and stressed he is — he’s putting in 18-hour days. But he is always kind, and he takes the time to ask how I’m doing and what my future plans are. He wants me to get as much as I can from this experience.”
One of the things Farnell is frequently asked to share during these meetings? Her perspective as a college student on the attitude of young adults toward the virus. To offer a more informed opinion, Farnell conducted a survey of 120 individuals, aged 18-24.
“I found this demographic is more concerned about the risk of giving the virus to someone else than contracting it themselves,” she said, adding that most respondents copped to visiting beaches, bars and restaurants in recent weeks as well as socializing with friends outside their quarantine bubbles. While this research is informing health department initiatives meant to encourage safer behavior, those plans remain under wraps for now.
In the meantime, Farnell studies the policies of other countries and states in order to develop future safety guidelines for everyday activities, like getting a haircut or going to the movies. Meant to protect vulnerable populations even after the distribution of a potential vaccine, these procedures come with a target implementation date of approximately one year from now. One example is the recommendation that New York grocery stores designate a checkout lane for use by high-risk patrons only. Other projects on Farnell’s desk include researching the untapped potential of telemedicine and helping to develop plans for vaccine distribution — no pressure.
“I have so many ideas about how to slow the spread of this virus, but you have to ask yourself whether these things are logistically and financially feasible,” she said. “Am I limiting people’s freedoms? There are so many facets to consider. I’ve developed a greater appreciation for how difficult it is to make a single policy decision and how much thought and effort goes into it.”
While some requirements of the job are a relative breeze — Farnell credits her public policy analysis course at UD with helping her think critically and refine her writing — other aspects have been unexpectedly difficult. The internship, set to run out of the health commissioner’s office in Albany, pivoted last minute to a remote format due to the virus, limiting the capacity for face-to-face collaboration. In coping with the change, Farnell is taking cues from her fellow Blue Hens.
“People who go to this University are taking advantage of this situation,” she said. “They’re pushing through, learning new skills and making it work, because they are highly dedicated to their interests and their passions. There’s a lot of that spirit at UD.”
Farnell will be channeling this mindset for the rest of her academic career and beyond. In the meantime, as a newly minted public health employee, she has one message she’d really like to stress.
“I want to plug the importance of masks, social distancing — even with friends and family — and frequent hand washing,” she said. “It has a significant impact, and that’s how we’ll keep those numbers down.”