Infectious Disease Expert Dedicated to Keeping the University Safe as New COVID-19 Coordinator
Advocating for the health of others has been central to Anthony J. Santella’s 20-year career in public health. He will apply that experience and expertise to oversee the ongoing response to mitigating the impact of COVID-19 on the University community.
Then he got a call from Mario Gaboury, J.D., Ph.D., interim provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, asking him if he would take on the role as the University’s COVID-19 Coordinator.
His answer was an emphatic yes. His official start date was July 1, but even before that he was jumping right in.
“I take the responsibility of being the University’s COVID coordinator very seriously,” says Santella, who has worked for 20 years in infectious disease prevention and control with a focus on HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases.
“There’s probably no better way to get to know all of your new colleagues than to take on such a public and visible role,” he says. “Within 48 hours, I got to meet everyone in human resources, communications, athletics, and the music department. The Task Force has representation from across the University and it’s a 24/7 operation.”
He promised the Task Force that he would use his commitment to and expertise in public health and policy, his deep understanding of the scientific process and the use of data, and emerging best practices to guide all decisions.
‘I will find creative ways to involve students in all of my work’
While navigating the complexities of the COVID response, he will also welcome the first cohort of the University’s second doctoral program, an online Doctor of Health Sciences. “They are a standout group of practitioners, administrators, and clinicians who will pursue either the educational leadership or healthcare leadership tracks of the program,” he says.
And he will be teaching and continuing his research, practice, and advocacy. Within days of his arrival, Dr. Santella was applying for grant funding for a vaccine hesitancy peer education program that will involve University students. He will continue work on a project with the New York City Department of Homeless Services, interviewing chronically ill people who are experiencing homelessness and analyzing data “with the goal of piloting programs to improve their experience.”
He is also reaching out to stakeholders in Connecticut who work in areas of HIV/AIDS, LGBTQ+ health, homelessness, and incarceration for future research and advocacy projects. “I will find creative ways to involve University of New Haven students in all of my work,” he says.
‘A public health case study that came to life’
It was in the second semester of his senior year at UConn, when he was majoring in biomedical sciences, that Dr. Santella was drawn to public health. Courses in community health and healthcare administration led to a “light bulb moment. I thought ‘this is what public health is: It’s science. It’s helping people. It’s advocating for historically forgotten populations,’” he says. “It was what I wanted to do.”
He worked in pharmaceutical marketing after graduating “but it wasn’t my calling. I needed to find the path to public health.” Within weeks of starting a master’s program in public health at Emory University, he found a job as a health educator at an infectious disease clinic, recruiting gay and bisexual men to take part in HIV vaccine trials.
He went on to get his Doctor of Public Health (DrPH) at Tulane University and, within six months of arriving, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. “That showed me all the good and bad about our healthcare system and public health,” he says. “New Orleans is a city of great wealth and extreme poverty. When I returned to my apartment, I saw who was coming back to the city, who wasn’t, and who was trapped in the Superdome area for months because there weren’t enough resources to help people. It was a public health case study that came to life.”
‘I’m so happy to be here’
After receiving his doctorate Dr. Santella was hired by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene as the director of policy, planning, and implementation for the HIV care, treatment, and housing program. “I knew our team had a profound impact ensuring people with HIV or at risk for HIV got the care and treatment they deserved,” he says. “They say healthcare is a human right, and that is so meaningful in our profession. Not everyone has that.”
While he loved the advocacy and practice, he didn’t like the bureaucracy and thought academia would be a better fit. His career as a professor has taken him to Long Island University, the University of Sydney and, most recently, to Hofstra University. His HIV research, meanwhile, has taken him to India, China, Kenya, the U.K., and Vietnam.
Coming to the University of New Haven represents a kind of homecoming for Dr. Santella, who grew up in Norwalk, the son of two immigrants from Italy. He looks forward to having his extended family close by, to rediscovering the state on morning runs and on walks with his partner and their rescue dog, Coco, and to the breadth and scope of the work he will do at the University.
“If I was going to make a change, it really had to be worthwhile for my family,” he says. “The University is investing in the School of Health Sciences, and they care very much about the safety and well-being of the entire University community and our neighbors. Those were things I felt when I was interviewing and when I was hired. Now I’m seeing it firsthand. I’m so happy to be here.”