A year that exposed how our health intertwines with everything from racism to social media misinformation taught valuable lessons that shouldn’t be lost amid the relief of increasing vaccinations against COVID-19.

That’s why the eighth annual Public Health Research at Maryland forum, which takes place tomorrow through Thursday, will focus on how what we learned about personal, mental and societal health can shape our approaches to pandemics, social injustice, climate change and other challenges.

“That’s really the burden that falls on all of our shoulders,” said Boris Lushniak, dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Health, the event’s host. “We have to be able to look at the world very differently based on past experience.”

Bringing together scholars from UMD, the University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB), and nonprofit and government organizations, the event will cover topics such as the intersection of COVID-19 with perpetual issues such as diabetes, maternal and infant mortality, and physical activity among youth. It is sponsored by the MPowering the State strategic partnership between UMD and UMB, and will also have a research poster competition with submissions from both the College Park and Baltimore campuses, other area universities, as well as county health departments. 

A discussion tomorrow will focus on misinformation’s impact on hot-button issues such as vaccines and e-cigarette and medical marijuana use and how to counteract it. The panel will be moderated by Cynthia Baur, director of the UMD Horowitz Center for Health Literacy and the Horowitz Endowed Chair in Health Literacy, who said the spread of false information on social media has muddled every major step in containing the coronavirus pandemic, from the seriousness of the threat to the legitimacy of stay-at-home orders and now the safety and efficacy of vaccines.

“It’s possible to really customize these messages in a way that targets people’s vulnerabilities, their fears, their concerns,” Baur said. “It’s much easier for me to pass that on (than in the past) because the cost of sharing is so low. All I have to do is hit a little button.”

The keynote speaker tomorrow will be David Michaels, an epidemiologist and professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health, a member of the Biden-Harris Transition COVID-19 Advisory Board and the author of the 2020 book “The Triumph of Doubt: Dark Money and the Science of Deception.” 

Michaels, who served as assistant secretary of labor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) from 2009 through January 2017, will discuss how COVID-19 is the latest event to show how the country’s regulatory framework is unable to properly respond to crises.

“Our public health system was really very weak and there were all sorts of gaps,” he said. “Rebuilding to what it looked like before won’t solve the problem. We need to reimagine how to rebuild it in a way that will best protect public health.”