Alumni Voices: Sami Jarrah ’07 Leads Public Health Work Behind the Scenes

Sami Jarrah ’07

Sami Jarrah ’07

Those in the trenches of the COVID-19 fight are confronting the crisis of the moment: treating victims, preventing contagion, helping the suddenly unemployed. 

In Philadelphia, Sami Jarrah is attacking the crisis of two weeks in the future.

“We’re setting up a 250-bed field hospital with FEMA. This is in a basketball arena in North Philly,” said Jarrah, chief operating officer at the Philadelphia Department of Public Health. “It comes with equipment and some still-to-be-determined number of staff. We’re going to have a hospital set up in a week or two. We have to make that work.”

250-bed field hospital in a basketball arena in North Philly

Sami Jarrah and his team work quickly to anticipate the future and meet the immediate needs of the public and healthcare workers. This North Philly basketball arena is now a 250-bed field hospital.

Jarrah, a 2007 Davidson College graduate, is part of the COVID-19 battle that the public doesn’t see. He and his team are tracking cases of the disease and figuring out how to handle those who tested positive but cannot easily self-isolate: students in hostels, the homeless, a member of a big family with no spare rooms.

His team makes sure those people have food, toiletries, medication. The health department staffers are buying protective gowns, masks and gloves for health care workers and others working with those who have tested positive.

“Sourcing PPE [personal protective equipment] isn’t sexy, but it’s really important,” Jarrah said. “Lots of negotiations with overseas suppliers. People come out of the woodwork trying to make money—shady suppliers. We have to navigate all that.”

He and his team plan for victims who are released from the hospital and will need support at home. They are working with hospitals to free them from elective surgeries, procedures that are not urgent, and shift expectant mothers to hospitals that will focus on delivering babies.  

“We have activated our medical reserve corps, volunteer health professionals,” Jarrah said. “We’re doing a mass testing site in a parking lot at [the Philadelphia Phillies’] Citizens Bank Park. We’re doing testing for six to eight hours. We test 250 people a day.”  

The health department helps tamp down rumors so that the public is accurately informed about the crisis—vigilant but not panicked. Domestic violence and suicide risk rise.

“We still have to provide that support, even in the middle of all this,” Jarrah said. “All those things don’t stop.”