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The Coordinated Pandemic Response of Duke and Durham

As cities and states wrestle with decisions on when and how to reopen, leaders at Duke and in Durham discuss their early collaboration and the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

Part of the Duke and Durham's response to COVID-19 Series
Michael Schoenfeld and Jillian Johnson
Michael Schoenfeld and Jillian Johnson

Durham Mayor Pro Tempore Jillian Johnson and Duke University Vice President for Public Affairs and Government Relations Michael Schoenfeld recently came together for a virtual “Coronavirus Conversations” to discuss how the city and university have collaborated and continue to partner in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Coronavirus Conversations are weekly events organized by the Duke Initiative for Science & Society to explore the social, ethical, and policy issues that arise as the world responds to the crisis.

The following are excerpts from the conversation:


Jillian Johnson, Durham Mayor Pro Tempore

“We have been for the last couple of months really building the plane as we fly it, trying to figure out what the best actions are to protect our residents. Our primary goal is the health and safety of the people that live in Durham, but also trying to minimize disruptions as much as possible.

“We’ve had a close collaboration with our County Public Health Department and with Duke. That collaboration has been really helpful and rewarding for us in terms of what we’re able to do in the community.”

Michael Schoenfeld, Vice President for Public Affairs and Government Relations

“As a research university, a major employer, and the principle health care provider for Durham, this didn’t just show up. We’ve actually been engaged with the city, county, and state since the end of December when we got the first notice of the outbreak in China.

“A number of people at Duke have been working on this for quite a while in a number of ways, with Durham County Public Health, the city, the state, RDU airport and others. This really has been a very widespread and coordinated effort.”


Jillian Johnson:

“Based on the information we’re getting from the Duke Data Analysis Team that Dr. Schoenfeld mentioned, we have seen our curve flattening. Our hospitals have not become overwhelmed. We haven’t exhausted the capacity of our health care system, which is always the biggest concern in terms of dealing with the potential mortality of this virus. If everyone has access to high quality health care like you would get at Duke Hospital, then we know the mortality rate is going to be greatly decreased.

“We have of course seen a number of deaths in the community, which is tragic. Our hearts go out to the families who are sick and suffering, but overall our numbers have not been as bad as we predicted they could have been without the intense interventions we made early on.”

Michael Schoenfeld:

“I want to credit Mayor Schewel, the City Council and the County Commission for really stepping up and stepping in at a time when it was absolutely necessary and when there were greater challenges at the state level than were known. They put Durham on a very good path from our perspective as a health care provider and employer.

“It’s too early to take the foot off the gas. Nonetheless we’re in a much better position than we expected to be three or four weeks ago and certainly better than we would have been had some of those strong measures not been put into place.”


Michael Schoenfeld:

“This is a story that is still being written. Certainly for Duke and any institution, we have never confronted a situation like this in which every part of what we do, health care, education, delivering services, investments, is either frozen or shocked all at once at the same time in every part of our activities.

“I know the impacts of this on local and state government will be dire. We’re all going to go through a period of retrenchment, but also work together to protect the most vulnerable in the Duke community, Durham community and beyond. We’ll be working on what will be essentially a restoration. Duke is absolutely committed to being a partner with the city and with the community.“

Jillian Johnson:

“None of us have governed through this kind of economic disruption before. It’s really revealed the fragility of the entire system. We talk about so many Americans not being able to cover a $400 emergency or how so many are one paycheck from poverty. We’ve found that our entire economic system is just one paycheck from poverty.”


Michael Schoenfeld:

“We’re looking at a range of options. Those options could be business as usual on one end, to not at all usual on the other. It’s impossible for us to predict today what things are going to look like a month from now. 

“We hope to have some clarity by the middle of June. When the stay-at home orders get lifted on May 15, it does not mean everyone come to the office on May 16.”

Jillian Johnson:

“We’re listening to experts. We’re getting all the guidance we can. Here in the city we believe in science and we believe in experts. We listen to doctors. Our residents can trust that we’re using the best possible evidence to make the best possible decisions with regard to restoring economic activity as quickly as we can, in a safe way.”


Michael Schoenfeld:

“We shouldn’t underestimate the value and power of innovation in what this recovery will look like. I’ll give you two examples. 

“On March 11, with the exception of Duke’s online master’s programs in business and engineering and a couple other small boutique programs, we taught a grand total of zero online classes. In a very short time, we transitioned 6500 courses taught by 1500 faculty.

“For the month of January 107 people used our telehealth service. On April 23, 7,000 people used our telehealth service. That is going to be a radical and dramatic change in the way people get healthcare and access health care. It will have long-term applications well beyond when we’re done with social distancing.”

Jillian Johnson:

Regarding broadband and access to connected devices, “There is a huge concern that this situation will exacerbate existing inequalities in education. We know kids of color and lower income kids have lower access to this sort of technology and they may fall further behind their white peers. 

“But I feel there is a real opportunity here. These needs have always existed, but they are being elevated and brought to the forefront by the pandemic.”


Jillian Johnson is Mayor Pro Tempore of Durham, NC. Johnson was appointed to the position in 2017 and re-elected to council in 2019. She is a long-time community organizer and activist, and a mother of two. Johnson earned her B.A in Public Policy at Duke in 2003. 

Michael J. Schoenfeld is Vice President, Public Affairs and Government Relations at Duke. He is also a visiting professor of the practice at the Sanford School of Public Policy, where he teaches a course on media and politics. Schoenfeld is graduated from Duke in 1984 and went to receive a master’s degree in public policy from Stony Brook University in 1986.