International Collaboration Against Pandemics

3 Questions for Elena Savoia, MPH ’04

Elena Savoia wears a brown jacket and white shirt
Elena Savoia


Dr. Savoia is Senior Research Scientist, Department of Biostatistics, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Deputy Director of the Emergency Preparedness Program with the Division of Policy Translation and Leadership Development

Elena Savoia, MPH ’04, is working with FEMA’s Region I Recovery Task Force facilitating New England’s response to COVID-19. Trained first as an MD in her home country of Italy, Dr. Savoia attended the Harvard Chan School and now serves in the School’s Department of Biostatistics and as deputy director of the Emergency Preparedness Program in the Division of Policy Translation and Leadership Development. She has been applying evaluation and survey methods to her work in emergency management with U.S. and Italian colleagues.

How has coronavirusimpact in Italy informed your work with FEMA?

When the outbreak started in February, I was in Italy visiting my family. One of the first cases emerged in the small town where I was born and where my father still lives. I connected immediately with colleagues in the region. The first issues that were evident were lack of access to and training in the use of personal protective equipment among health care workers. I started to support them in trying to understand the different types of equipment that were available and appropriate, and the level of training of hospital personnel. We were able to quickly develop and launch a survey and make the results of the survey available to hospital management to inform policies and training.

It really helped me to visualize what could have happened here. Right now I’m serving on the FEMA Recovery Task Force and I’m continuously in touch with my colleagues in Italy to understand how the reopening is going, and trying to transfer that knowledge to planning efforts here in the United States. Even if they’re two very different realities, there’s still a lot of opportunity for us to learn from each other.

What does your work with FEMAs coronavirus response look like?

FEMA creates an inventory of resources and continuously checks in with the states to understand what theirneeds are. There is great collaboration and great communication, from what I can see here in Region I [states in New England]. My role is facilitating discussions on topics that are important to consider during recovery efforts. Some of these calls help local officials ask questions of the federal government and brainstorm what their next priorities are. They really have to think ahead, because in preparedness, you’re working today, but you’re thinking about what is the system going to look like in three weeks, in six weeks, in three months.

How will COVID-19 change the way public health professionals collect or use data?

There’s been a great collaboration between epidemiologists. People have shared data like never before, making data publicly available very quickly. I have also seen great collaboration between alumni. There are alumni in Italy from the Harvard School of Public Health whom I speak to at least twice a week in regards to COVID-19, and it’s been incredibly helpful. In the future, there’s definitely going to be a need to collect more data on ethnic disparities and to have systems in place where data collection is easy. We collect information about age very quickly. We are not as good in getting data about race and ethnicity as effectively as other variables. This is probably something that epidemiologists can work together on to make sure that, at the state and the local level, these data are collected, because they’re extremely important.

In the future, we’re going to leverage all this knowledge about how to quickly share information with each other even more effectively.