Convening the public health workforce, policymakers, academia, community-based organizations, and others passionate about improving the public’s health, the State of the Public’s Health Conference (SOPH) aims to drive meaningful, solutions-oriented discussion to advance the health of all Georgians.

Heading in its 12th year, the conference explores approaches to tackling the most pressing public health issues affecting Georgia communities today, including mental health care access, improving maternal and child health, and topics on health equity.

This work requires a multi-sector, collaborative approach. It requires you.

This event is organized annually by the University of Georgia College of Public Health and held at the University of Georgia Center for Continuing Education and Hotel in Athens, Georgia.

Save the Date – October 26, 2023

Join us in 2023 as we convene once for our 12th annual State of the Public’s Health conference on Thursday, October 5 at the UGA Center for Continuing Education & Hotel in Athens, Ga.

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Have questions? Check out our FAQs or email Cindy Humphries.

Highlights from the 11th Annual Conference

Thank you to all who attended the 11th annual State of the Public’s Health Conference on Thursday, October 27, 2022 at the UGA Center for Continuing Education & Hotel. We hope the day offered new ideas and inspiration to take action in your communities.

For those who could not join us or would like to revisit some of the day’s highlights, we invite you to review our conference program, scroll through our Facebook photo album of the event, or read through our collection of conference briefs (see below) provided through reporting from UGA’s Health and Medical Journalism graduate program news room.

Featured Keynote Speakers

Montrece McNeill Ransom, JD, MPH currently serves as the Director of the National Coordinating Center for Public Health Training at the National Network of Public Health Institutes. Ms. Ransom will be discussing issues of health equity and incorporating equity into public health practice.

Dr. J. Marshall Shepherd is a leading international expert in weather and climate and is the Georgia Athletic Association Distinguished Professor of Geography and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Georgia. He will discuss the art and challenges of communicating science today.













Breakout Sessions

The 2022 SOPH conference included six breakout sessions addressing –

  • Adolescent and Young Adult Mental Health
  • Federal COVID-19 Mandates
  • Improving Black Maternal and Child Health Outcomes
  • Structural Barriers to Health in Rural Georgia
  • Homelessness in Atlanta
  • Monkeypox

Download Program

Briefs from the 2022 SOPH Conference

Morning Keynote: The Responsibility of Belonging

By Zharia McKenzie

Montrece McNeil Ransom remembers the morning her mother her down, her hands parting her hair, braiding it, as they sat in silence. She was asked to wear her Sunday best, even though it was a Friday, a school day.

She had been getting ready for her mother’s marriage, an event that marked her first days of belonging to the McNeil family of three. She felt happy. Safe.

To her, this was the first important lesson about how finding a sense of belonging can have a positive influence on health and well-being.

Ransom, now a leading expert on public health law and public health workforce development, shared this story to open her keynote address at the 2022 State of the Public’s Health Conference on October 27, in Athens, Georgia.

In her current role as the Director of the National Coordinating Center for Public Health Training at the National Network of Public Health Institutes, Ransom focuses on how a sense of belonging can lead to increased community engagement, social engagement and community and self-advocacy. She stressed the importance of self in this process, saying that it has to come from within.

“A sense of belonging is something you must create for yourself,” Ransom said. “Other folks are going to get it wrong.”

Ransom’s position in the public health workforce allows her to cultivate cultures of belonging, empowering others to apply their gifts and skill sets to enhance the field. One important aspect of this, Ransom said, is to be in the right and suitable place.

“Belonging is not about fitting,” Ransom said. “It’s been said that if I get to be me, I belong. If I have to be like you, I fit in.”

Some privileges come with belonging, but there are challenges too. According to data from the Census Bureau, within a week of Georgie Floyd’s murder, anxiety, and depression increased among black Americans.

The body keeps score, Ransom reminded the audience, and racism is one determinant of health. Following Floyd’s murder, racial health equity was a topic of open dialogue when discussing health disparities.

To curate change, Ransom said public health practitioners need to lead with belonging. She shared a model that sparks a culture about belonging and the workplace:

S – make pace for authenticity
P – be professionally competent and personally compassionate
A – develop an acceptance mindset
R – representation
K – know your biases

Ransom said she hopes that individuals will choose to be a creator of belonging for other people.

“It’s about human connection. When we feel like we belong, we feel called to come together just like me, my mom and my dad to build our version of a better future and bring it to life,” she said.

Afternoon Keynote: Meteorology and Public Health Become Increasingly Intersected Fields

By Megan Farrer

The technology cooling the device you’re reading this on may someday be used to cool cities, redistributing and repurposing heat from the hottest urban areas.

That’s one current project atmospheric sciences expert Marshall Shepherd is exploring to combat the impacts of climate change on communities.

Heat transfer technology may seem a strange topic to share in a keynote presentation at the 2022 State of the Public’s Health Conference, but it exemplifies the types of interdisciplinary research projects and diverse teams that are tackling the intertwined issues of climate change, extreme weather and public health disparities.

According to Shepherd, who is the Georgia Athletic Association Distinguished Professor of Geography and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Georgia, cities are a specific nexus of climate change and health due to “urban heat islands,” locations where things like pavement, lack of trees and waste heat create spaces that are hotter.

This extra heat means increased energy costs for residents, air pollution and health risks like heat-related illness and death.

Urban heat islands are one symptom of human-caused climate change. A warming planet also increases the number of weather events like hurricanes and even snowstorms that can disable infrastructure like healthcare systems, water, power and roads. And this increase in frequency is not trivial, especially when looking at 2022’s severe weather events.

“We’re into October and we’re already at 15 events,” Shepherd said. “These numbers are significant, and they continue to increase every year.”

Beyond extreme weather events, a warmer climate spells other changes that have significant public health implications. Among these changes are increased allergens, forced human migration, degraded living conditions, water and food-related issues and shifts in how infectious diseases in animals spill over into human populations.

“There are mosquitos that can thrive here in the contiguous United States that 30 years ago could not. You only found them in tropical places,” said Shepherd.

One of Shepherd’s research objectives is to illuminate the processes connecting climate change, extreme weather, and the populations that experience their worst effects: a concept he’s named the “Extreme Weather-Climate Gap.”

Shepherd focuses on two specific aspects of weather-climate experiences: risk and resilience. The “gap” in “Weather-Climate Gap” refers to a disproportionate sensitivity to extreme weather-climate events in certain communities, and a delay in their ability to bounce back.

“Now as I scan the room, I would imagine that if we all lived in a coastal community and there was a hurricane like Ian approaching, I think most of us probably have the economic capacity to take our families and perhaps go to Atlanta to get away – and insurance to withstand damage,” Shepherd said. “A lot of people don’t have either of those options.”

The ways that individuals and communities experience the symptoms of climate change are affected by existing geographic, racial and economic inequalities, he explained. Those who live in vulnerable places and don’t have the resources to “bounce back” after extreme whether events tend to experience increased rates of illness and mortality as a result.

Shepherd stressed the importance of understanding the connections between climate and public health as a path toward a more just future as we navigate what he calls the “new normal” of more extreme weather.

So while the connection between the cooling technology in your devices and urban mortality rates might not be immediately clear, it’s these types of big ideas and diverse collaborations that Shepherd sees as hopeful.

Breakout Session: Programs available to address dire mental health needs of Georgia's youth

By Haoyue Xiang

Picture this scenario: A high school student breaks up with his girlfriend. He skips tennis practice. He’s despondent. He doesn’t want to do anything with friends. He starts to fail his classes. One day, he slips a note into a friend’s locker that says, “We’re having the epic party of a lifetime tonight.”

When you’re not a trained mental health expert, you may not see these behaviors as warning signs of suicide. And if you do, how do you support and help this teen?

That’s the question two University of Georgia researchers addressed in a session presented at the annual State of the Public’s Health conference held on October 27, 2022, in Athens.

Diane Bales, a professor in the College of Family & Consumer Sciences (FACS), and Janani R. Thapa, an associate professor in the College of Public Health (CPH), discussed new work outlining the prevalence and healthcare costs of mental health among youth in Georgia and shared programs to address these challenges, with a primary focus on the Youth Mental Health First Aid national curriculum.

Thapa presented the findings of two analyses she conducted with colleagues from the CPH’s Economic Evaluation Research Group – one using self-reported data from middle and high school students across the U.S., and the second using Medicaid application dataset.

According to their analysis, 1 in 6 children in the U.S. between the ages of two and eight-years-old has a mental, behavioral or developmental disability. And although the national rate of mental health disabilities among adolescents has decreased in recent years, it is increasing in Georgia.

And many of these teens face access barriers to treatment, in both rural and urban communities. And the data showed low rates of health care utilization suggest that the high cost of mental health care is also a factor.

It is more expensive to have patients come back again and again. More research is needed to under where disparities exist and why they exist, said Thapa.

“That means the researchers collaboration to identify why and there are disparity and disparity exist,” Thapa said.

Inability to access care is another reason why community-based mental health programs may be an effective tool in addressing adolescent mental challenges.

The Youth Mental Health First Aid national curriculum, overseen by the National Board of Mental Health, teaches adults and community members how to assist young people in coping with mental health issues and seeking the professional treatment if they need it.

Bales said that the curriculum is part of a secondary defense model for addressing youth mental health challenges, and it could be particularly useful in rural areas. It provides a framework to help teens talk about the struggles they may be feeling.

“It’s early identification of mental health challenges, not letting a young person get to the point where they’re considering suicide,” Bales said.

Breakout Session: COVID-19’s Legacy on Federal Authority

By Lucy Swearingen

Over two years after COVID-19 after hit U.S. shores, its impact the American legal and political system are still playing out.

“There seems to be greater political reactivity around Covid,” said Elizabeth Weeks, associate provost for faculty affairs and Charles H. Kirbo Chair at the School of Law at the University of Georgia.

Weeks led a session at the annual State of the Public Health conference in Athens, Georgia on October 27, 2022, dissecting the new political landscape in the wake of varied responses to the pandemic by the federal government.

During her presentation, Weeks emphasized how the response to the Covid crisis by federal officials has fluctuated between initial indifference, to primary concern, and now seeming disregard.

“I keep saying we’re certainly not done with the pandemic,” she said. “Although, Biden says it’s over, which created a whole firestorm in these lawsuits,” said Weeks.

Divided public opinion on the government’s response to Covid, and in particular vaccine mandates, raised questions about the state of various health mandates enforced by the federal government.

Common oppositions to vaccine mandates for Covid-19 center on the concern of too much involvement from the government into private lives.

“You can’t take it off,” she said, comparing a required vaccine to required safety equipment in the workforce.

Weeks invited her audience to wonder what effects will last after the pandemic. Has a new standard potentially been set?

“Whether we’ll begin to see a stronger presence of federal authority, a lasting imprint, is what I’m really interested in,” Weeks said.

Since Covid-19 is a moving target as described by Weeks, it’s hard to predict how these mandates will continue to shift; however, Weeks predicts that this topic of government and mandates on Covid-19 will continue to evolve with changing season.

Though Weeks leaves no explicit takeaways, she hopes to see a stronger presence of federal authority in public health spaces.

“It’s difficult right now because of where we are, you know, as variants continue to move over the winter. We may see other attempts that are still kind of at play,” she said.

Breakout Session: Culturally reflective care coordination improved maternal and infant health outcomes for Black families in Fulton County

By Evan Washington 

For Kimberly Broomfield-Massey, improving Black maternal and child health outcomes is about connection.

“People are people, so when you are providing services, you have to remember that you are providing services to people and not just talk at them, but to connect with them,” she said to the audience gathered for her session at the 11th annual State of the Public’s Health conference on October 27, 2022.

Broomfield-Massey presented the Atlanta Healthy Start Initiative’s work to enhance the health of women and children during birth and early childhood by providing services such as home visitations, referrals to health and social services, parent and breastfeeding education and support, mental and emotional well-being services, monthly peer support groups and postpartum education.

Services are delivered by a care coordination team of individuals based in the community and who are the same race as the families they serve.

“When you build a team that is culturally respectful and culturally reflective, then that becomes someone that they develop a relationship with and they begin to listen to, and then they begin to value,” Broomfield-Massey said.

Georgia has the highest maternal mortality rate in the nation, at 46.2 deaths per 100,000 live births. For Black mothers, the rate is 4 times higher than the U.C. average.

In Fulton County, where AHSI operates, infant mortality rates amongst the African American community are more than 2 times higher than the national average, said Broomfield-Massey.

Black participants in this initiative have lower rates of preterm births, low and very low birthweight births, and maternal and infant mortality than nonparticipants in Fulton County.

The success of the initiative may serve as a model for organizations and researchers exploring community-based methods for improving maternal health outcomes.

For Broomfield-Massey personally, the work stoked her passion for improving the lives of the families in Fulton County.

“I started this work as just someone there to collect data,” Broomfield-Massey said. “I learned about their mission, and it hooked me, and once you know that an organization is doing something, and they are really making a difference and care about the people their working with, then it really ignites something in you.”

Breakout Session: Two innovative approaches seek to improve rural health in Georgia

By Ashley Simmons

In a joint session presented at the 2022 State of the Public’s Health conference, Allan Tate and Caleb Snead highlighted the structural barriers preventing some individuals and families in Georgia from achieving their best health – and innovative approaches to address and remove these barriers.

Snead and Tate spoke about how to specifically address health inequities and concerns for two populations: rural Georgians and incarcerated people.

Tate focused his presentation on the health resources offered to families in rural Georgia through the Family Matters Georgia study, which Tate leads as an assistant professor at UGA’s College of Public Health.

“Health is produced based on where people live, learn, work, and play. The Family Matters study is aiming to identify each of these targets and have a better understanding on how public health is related to each,” Tate said.

He said he believes that structural racism and discrimination is the main reason why many cities and counties in the state are unable to receive the needed care for both mental and physical health.

Tate also touched on the multilevel social and structural determinants of family health by breaking down the Family Matters study framework, which collects data at the individual, neighborhood, institutional, and the societal/policy levels, which covers voting and incarceration privileges.

By improving the mental and behavioral health of parents, which will then lead to an improvement in the child’s mental, behavioral, and physical health. Tate describes this as a chain reaction but understands that in order to see change, change has to be made – and structural racism and discrimination has to be erased in different parts of rural Georgia.

Snead, a public health graduate student at the University of Georgia, had been conducting research on how co-responder models can help reduce incarceration rates among people experiencing a mental health crisis.

The majority of incarcerated people, he said, have mental health needs that are often unaddressed. These needs often either go undiagnosed, or untreated as many prisoners do not receive the proper care they need for their illnesses.

2022 has been called the year of mental health in Georgia, catalyzed by the Mental Health Parity Act being signed into law. which requires insurance companies to ensure equivalent coverage for mental healthcare and physical healthcare.

The law also authorized initiatives to help communities provide mental health assistance and care, including co-responder programs that bring in a mental health care professional to support police response to an emergency involving a person experiencing a crisis.

Many people struggling with mental issues receive help for the first time when they go to jail. Snead believes “that jail, and different court trials should not have to be done first in order to get mental patients to the services they need.”

The path forward for public health, he said, includes improving data collection on these issues to inform ways in which the field can increase connections to mental health services, support decriminalizing mental health patients, and decreasing the stigmas surrounding mental health patients.

Breakout Session: Valuing Lives from All Walks of Life, Connecting Stories to Resources

By Kerbi Lynn

During a session at the 2022 State of Public Health Conference, Sophen Joseph invited her audience to experience unique way to understand the lives of those experiencing homelessness in Atlanta.

Instead of simply clicking through slides of statistics and charts, Joseph, who is the program coordinator at the Atlanta Regional Collaborative for Health Improvement (ARCHI), distributed cards featuring a QR code that led to an audio recording, YouTube video, and written transcription of a person telling their story of living unhoused.

One of the cards introduced audiences to Justin. He had to have his leg amputated a year and a half prior to the recording but said that he maintains positivity by focusing on his “faith, family, and a little bit of intelligence.”

Joseph explained that Justin, and many others experiencing homelessness, were able to tell their stories through Archi and Global Dialogues.

In partnership with Global Dialogues, Partnership for Southern Equity, Partners for Home, and the Annie E. Casey Foundation, ARCHI collected Equity Stories like Justin’s to elevate the experiences of DeKalb, Fulton, and Clayton County residents who had a past or present experience of homelessness

“We are taking a free-formed approach to listening, learning, and elevating the suggestions of our community members,” said Joseph.

This approach allowed for the participants to tell their stories in a way that left them feeling empowered instead of belittled.

Once the interviews had been conducted, panels were put together where community resource organizations could hear the stories and better understand the specific needs of the people they are serving.

“We came in to understand what it was that Ms. Tamara needed at that moment,” said Joseph, sharing one participant’s story.

“Yes, she needs somewhere to stay but what has that looked like? Has she spent time speaking to people and they are turning her away for minor things, or is it because the agencies aren’t communicating well with each other? Or did Ms. Tamara need resources that had nothing to do with housing?”

While ARCHI does not take credit and is not responsible for providing Tamara with the resources to be housed, they were able to get to the root her needs and connect her to organizations to get her those things.

Justin’s, Tamara’s, and many others full stories can be found on the ARCHives website along with many other resources for those who are experiencing homelessness in Atlanta, those who want to help, and those who want to connect with the ARCHI collaborative.

Breakout Session: Monkeypox trends worldwide and in Georgia

By Mishayla Young

Andrea McCollum was sitting in a Publix grocery store parking lot in May when she got the text: Four new cases of monkeypox were confirmed in the United Kingdom. Two days later, the first case of monkeypox in the U.S. was reported in Massachusetts.

Since that week, McCollum, who serves as the Poxvirus Epidemiology Team Lead at the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), has been focused on tracking and containing the monkeypox outbreak.

“It’s all I think about day and night. I eat, breathe, and sleep monkeypox,” McCollum said.

McCollum presented on the global response effort to monkeypox at the 11th Annual State of the Public Health’s Conference on Thursday, October 27, 2022.

As of October 26, 2022, there were 76,000 cases worldwide in 102 countries.

“The United States has 28,087 confirmed monkeypox cases, charting globally as the largest number of confirmed cases to date,” said McCollum.

There are many misunderstandings regarding the transmission of monkeypox, McCollum said. Many of these cases were individuals who reported prior male-to-male sexual contact, but she said this is only one of many forms of transmission. Animal-to-human is another common way the virus can spread.

The U.S. has two available vaccines: Jynneos and ACAM2200. Both vaccines are derived from approved smallpox vaccines since the viruses are similar.

Amanda Feldpausch, monkeypox response co-lead at the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) presented on Georgia’s case rates and response.

“We’ve consistently been one of the top six states by way of case numbers,” said Feldpausch.

According to data provided by DPH, Georgia saw a case surge in August, with more than 60 reported cases in one day. However, daily cases have been on the decline since that time.

“One challenge did come up, and that’s delayed results,” Feldpausch said. “It’s something we face every time with any of these responses at a local level”. 

DPH has since committed resources to improve testing and vaccinations, Feldpausch said. The Jynneos vaccination is available in Georgia and can be scheduled through the Vaccine Scheduling Resource Line at (888) 457-0186.

“We will continue to use data to inform improvement equitable access to online scheduling tools, and for accessible vaccine events,” Feldpausch said.

-- Highlights from Previous Conferences: 2015 to Present