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Public health student experiences intersection of public health education and practice at CDC

By Aaron Borrelli

The current coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has put public health squarely in the spotlight. As public health professionals, we are always on the frontline of emerging health issues. Whether the public health concern of the day is related to infectious diseases, e-cigarettes and vaping, environmental health, or vaccine hesitancy, there will continue to be a need for trained public health practitioners and for professionals who have an understanding of the science and evidence behind public health.

As a current student in Florida International University’s Master of Public Health (MPH) online program, I am seeing first-hand the intersection of public health education and public health practice while the country responds to the COVID-19 outbreak.  I work as a public health advisor at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the Division of Preparedness and Emerging Infections within the National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases. The CDC is one of the central public health agencies responsible for guiding health officials in the response and keeping the public informed during this pandemic.

Specifically, my position is a Program Integration Advisor for CDC’s ELC Program, which is Epidemiology and Laboratory Capacity for the Prevention and Control of Emerging Infectious Diseases. ELC is a national cooperative agreement program that awards funding to state, local, and territorial health departments to detect, respond to, control, and prevent infectious diseases. The program aims to strengthen U.S. cross-cutting epidemiology and laboratory capacity, health information systems, and other related program and project areas. My role includes coordinating and fostering opportunities for strategic collaboration and communication among our program partners. I also manage program integration activities related to our national cooperative agreement program.

CDC’s ELC Program is one of the federal programs currently providing funds to state and local health departments for COVID-19 response. The funding from our program is for community-based surveillance of COVID-19.  Health departments across the country are being called upon to assist with COVID-19 response and CDC staff are also assisting with response activities whether at CDC headquarters, CDC’s Emergency Operations Center, or deployed to locations across the U.S. and globally. While my program already provides ongoing support and technical assistance related to prevention and control of infectious diseases, we are adjusting program operations as needed to help support U.S. health departments and fellow CDC staff during the COVID-19 pandemic.

When CDC responds to a public health emergency or major health issue, it activates response teams, task forces, and/or its Emergency Operations Center. In times of need, the agency pulls together its emergency response professionals and other CDC staff willing to be temporarily reassigned or deployed to assist in a variety of capacities. Even if staff is not directly part of the response, others may need to help cover workload for those responding. Throughout our agency, we see the numerous, collective effects of a public health response and learn about the extraordinary efforts required to address these threats. We also see the diverse and interconnected sectors of society that are affected and how many ways public health plays a key role in our lives.

As an Master of Public Health student in FIU’s online program, I am learning key concepts and perspectives of public health that help me better understand areas such as epidemiology, health policy, and health promotion. After completing my epidemiology course at FIU, I have an advanced understanding of the spread of disease among the population, impact on the public’s health, and the terminology we are all hearing during this pandemic. My courses in health policy and health promotion are also key to increasing my knowledge of public health approaches as the federal government works to provide technical assistance and support to the public and private healthcare system.

Higher education public health programs are key to preparing our global workforce for the many health challenges we face whether routine or a crisis. The importance of online education has been further reinforced by the current recommendations for social distancing and virtual operations during the COVID-19 pandemic. Our work in the public health field impacts our community, state, nation, and the world and requires trained professionals to meet today’s challenges and into the future.

This article was prepared by Aaron Borrelli in his personal capacity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Health and Human Services, or the United States government. 

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