Jeff Schlegelmilch: Public Health Preparedness and the Environment

In Climate, Game changers 20, Planet by Mary Kurek

Jeff Schlegelmilch is the Deputy Director for the National Center for Disaster Preparedness. His areas of expertise include public health preparedness, community resilience, and the integration of private and public sector capabilities. Some topics of past work include developing inter-organizational processes for operational epidemiological modeling, evacuation and sheltering planning for people with medical dependencies, and adapting business intelligence systems for disaster response and recovery operations. He also leads the Resilient Children/Resilient Communities Initiative, which focuses on building child-focused community resilience within communities, and throughout the nation.

Jeff testifying at the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense (formerly the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense) (photo credit Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense)

He has advised local, state, and federal leaders on preparedness programs and policies and has briefed congressional staff on key preparedness legislation and funding areas. He frequently serves as a subject matter expert source for the media and is an expert Contributor for The Hill. He is also the author of the forthcoming book Rethinking Readiness: A Brief Guide to Twenty-First-CenturyMega-disasters from Columbia University Press.

He holds a Master’s degree in Public Health from UMASS Amherst in Health Policy and Management, and a Master’s in Business Administration from Quinnipiac University.

Q & A with Jeff:

Q:  What is it about the environment that could be considered contributing factors to the coronavirus?

A:  With infectious diseases, the greatest and most recurrent threat is the opportunity for viruses and bacteria to jump from animals to humans, then to rapidly spread among the human population.  With regard to COVID-19, it’s more of a sustainable development conversation than a climate change issue. For other diseases, warming temperatures can alter the breeding areas of certain mosquitoes and other animals beyond their historical homes. But the bigger factor is how we live in terms of population density and proximity to one another, and the opportunity for diseases to spread.  In 1918, at the end of WWI, the spread of the Spanish Flu came about at roughly the same time as massive troop movements. History gives us clues to how fast things can spread through interconnectedness.  

We should also be concerned about the coming onset of “disaster seasons” of flooding, hurricanes, and wildfires in vulnerable areas, as these issues create scenarios for mass-sheltering and further disruption of community lifelines.  This is a serious concern, not only for congregate settings leading to further spread of COVID-19, but also because resources are being depleted now for the pandemic that could be needed soon. The impact of climate change is creating disruptions to our lives both directly, and indirectly through concurrent stressors on our society.

IBM Films documentary Code and Response. In the photo are R-L Jeff with Jackie Ratner and Jonathan Sury (photo credit Austin Peck).

Q:  What are the learnings from this pandemic that relate to the environment that we should take forward?

A:  The value of preparedness is the answer — we haven’t figured out how to monetize it as clearly or as specifically as we would like to.  For instance, we haven’t priced preparedness into the supply chain as well as national and global security as much as we should, and now we are seeing the impacts of not enough supplies to respond.  What’s cheaper in the short run isn’t what’s best in the long term. Regarding ventilators and PPEs, we should hold onto production capacity to some degree, and have greater stockpiles. Investors often see excess production capacity as bad business, but, in the case of life-saving equipment and supplies, we need to build this capacity into our readiness.

Regarding climate change, the rush to get back to normal is going to be a challenge.  People do need to get back to work, but, during this pandemic, we’ve been seeing tremendous ecological benefits.  Less travel and learning new ways of doing things that’s better, more sustainable, and less disruptive to the environment has been good.  Reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and air quality in NY has improved to the point that it is the best that it has been in a long time. That will change when everyone gets back to work.  But, we shouldn’t forget this, and we should try and find ways to preserve some of this environmental benefit where it is possible.  

Q:  What can we take away from this experience to correct “environmental behaviors” moving forward?

A:  Using the example of disposable products, there’s a useful reason for these during a situation like this…where it is not just a convenience, but makes things safer for those who are trying to save lives. So trying to get everyone to simply stop using single-use products may not make sense under certain circumstances.  Fighting about bags and straws is a cheap solution to the much more expensive problem of sustainable development. We should keep a close eye on solutions that make our own lives easier, and pay attention to what good and sustainable practices are coming out of this situation and how can we continue that. The best answers are those that improve lives while also making them easier, rather than trying to forcibly restrict consumption. 

Jeff’s book, Rethinking Readiness. Link to where the book is available is to the left.

Jeff’s Networking Interests:

  • Bloggers, podcasters, and other media with an audience that relates to this subject matter
  • Legislators and government leaders who want to share feedback or understand more about health/environmental concerns to inform policy
  • Corporate and business leaders 



Jeff’s Book Link:

National Center for Disaster Preparedness:

Earth Institute Blog post:

Earth Institute Recording: