A Respiratory Pandemic is the Perfect Time to Quit Smoking | Albright College

A Respiratory Pandemic is the Perfect Time to Quit Smoking


TAPPED TO GUIDE NEW YORK’S COVID-19 CONTRACT TRACING EFFORTS, Abright graduate Kelly Henning, M.D. ’81 is an epidemiologist and medical doctor, and has led Bloomberg Philanthropies’ public health program since it began in 2007.

As a biochemistry student at Albright College, Kelly Henning spent many hours hunkered down in science labs. It was a time well spent, she recalls, because the discipline and organizational skills she acquired while conducting experiments helped propel her career as a leading public health professional.

“The lessons learned in the chemistry lab were very important and useful for me as a manager as I moved forward,” says Henning, who today leads Bloomberg Philanthropies’ sprawling public health programs.

After graduating from Albright in 1981, Henning received a medical degree from Tufts University School of Medicine. Then, believing the field offered an opportunity to improve the health and lives of millions of people, she gravitated toward epidemiology and infectious diseases. She trained as an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control’s Epidemic Intelligence Service and for infectious diseases at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and in 2003 became the first director of the newly formed Division of Epidemiology at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

At Bloomberg Philanthropies, Henning’s mandate is global. She directs an array of programs covering complex public health challenges — including initiatives on tobacco cessation, maternal health improvements, road safety promotion, obesity and drowning prevention. While none of these are infectious diseases per se, Henning describes them as “preventable health hazards” that lead to injuries — and are in turn the leading causes of death around the world. In fact, millions of people die each year from tobacco use, vehicular crashes and lack of emergency obstetric care. And most troubling, efforts to combat many of these health hazards are often, as she puts it, “underappreciated and underfunded.”

For its part, Bloomberg Philanthropies, founded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has committed $1 billion over the past 16 years to its Reduce Tobacco Use initiative in 56 countries. In total, about 85 percent of Bloomberg Philanthropies’ public health programming goes to low- and middle-income countries — such as a reproductive health initiative in Sub-Saharan Africa and another to prevent drowning deaths among children in Bangladesh. There are also programs in the United States — for example, fighting the e-cigarette industry and its sale of flavored vaping products that have fueled a youth nicotine epidemic.

This year, Henning and her team faced yet another devastating public health challenge: the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We felt the coronavirus was a once-in-a-century event, and pivoted to engage immediately,” she says about the organization’s coronavirus response. Bloomberg Philanthropies made a $331 million commitment to help fund both a local response, whose efforts include providing masks and meals to healthcare workers and aiding cultural and service nonprofits, and a global response, with a strong focus on African nations, to prevent or slow the spread of the disease.

The emergency COVID-19 program also allocated more than $10 million in technical assistance and organizational support for local initiatives such as New York State’s contact tracing program, which is one of the largest in the country.

Efforts to ramp up contact tracing have been encouraging.

So far, efforts to ramp up contact tracing — which tries to identify anyone who has been in close contact with a confirmed or probable COVID-19 patient — have been encouraging, says Henning. One important aspect of the program is to ensure that those hired as tracers “have empathy and an ability to listen and understand the difficult situation many people are in,” as those who might have been exposed to the disease are encouraged to isolate or quarantine themselves.

Despite the urgency of the COVID-19 response, the other programs under Henning’s leadership continue to move ahead — and in the case of tobacco use, she has used social media to draw a connection between the two. Eight million people die every year from smoking, and because smokers are more likely to have underlying lung diseases they are therefore at greater risk during a respiratory pandemic. The link between these two health crises, she says, “makes it the perfect moment for governments and public health officials to promote smoking cessation programs.”

As coronavirus outbreaks continued through the summer, Henning was ready to provide her perspective on how schools — including more than 4,300 colleges such as Albright — might devise safety protocols in order to resume classes in the fall or next spring.

“There is a need for colleges and universities to carefully think about how to safely reopen, as teens and young adults can still get quite ill,” she explains. The usual measures — physical distancing, mask wearing, hand washing and sanitizing facilities — are of course critical. But Henning, with years of experience as an epidemiologist and infectious disease specialist, also points out that a deep understanding of the local community is critical.

“The more there is community spread, the greater the likelihood of it spreading to the institution,” she says. “There’s no wall between the community and the institution. If it is raging in the community there is a big risk it might rage at the school.”

Follow Kelly Henning on Twitter at @drkellyhenning

Ernest Beck