Diverse Group of Atlanta Experts Support COVID-19 Field Team in BrazilPosted on by
When CDC staff go into the field to investigate outbreaks, a diverse group based in Atlanta supports their every move. Scientists create research protocols, logistics coordinators handle travel and lodging, someone looks for funds to pay for the work.
I am an epidemiologist. Earlier this year, as the Atlanta lead for a team that deployed to Parintins, Brazil on the Amazon river part of my job was to find CDC staff who met specific criteria. They had to be vaccinated. They had to be skilled epidemiologists and medical officers who could speak Portuguese. And they had to be willing to deploy to Brazil at the height of an outbreak of a new coronavirus variant known as P.1.
I worked with staffing experts on CDC’s International Task Force (ITF) and explored my own professional and personal networks to start a list.
My colleagues and I identified five highly skilled and enthusiastic Atlanta-based CDC epidemiologists and medical officers, all originally from Brazil, who were willing to deploy on short notice into a very difficult situation. The incredible diversity of skills and nationalities of the CDC workforce was impressive and helped us quickly respond to the urgent need in Brazil. There, they were joined by colleagues from the newly opened CDC South America regional office headquartered in Brasília, Brazil.
This was my second COVID-19 deployment. I was recruited both times by Barb Marston, one of the ITF leads. The first time, in February 2020, I went to Japan to provide epidemiological support to the Diamond Princess Cruise Ship response. I had contacts in the Japan Ministry of Health, and I previously worked with Barb extensively in our home division (Parasitic Diseases and Malaria) in the Center for Global Health.
I distinctly remember frantically packing for the Japan trip and coming to the dreadful realization that our lives would change drastically in the coming years.
This year, Barb asked me to work on the Brazil team since I have experience covering malaria activities in several Portuguese-speaking countries in Africa. I have worked in Mozambique and Angola since 2012 on Epidemic Intelligence Services (EIS) projects, and I also spent time in Guinea Bissau during the 2014-2016 West Africa Ebola epidemic. I felt like I had a duty to support the Brazil response given my skills and the acute need for support.
Planning a Field Study in Brazil
We faced a challenge in deciding where to conduct a field study in Brazil. When investigating the spread of a new variant of concern, it is important to be able to predict where it will spread next. The crux is in being able to mount a field study that will enroll enough participants to be able to say something meaningful about the variant.
Because it takes at least a few weeks to gather the team and develop the protocols, obtain permission, etc., the place where there is currently high variant spread might counterintuitively not be the ideal place to plan a study. By the time the study begins, the variant transmission might have already peaked. In Brazil, we had to essentially make an educated guess as to which state the variant would move to next to time the study correctly.
We were also operating on a very rapid timeline—one critical resource was the CDC Foundation. Rapidly available resources from the Foundation allowed us to purchase critical lab supplies and support partners to help with data entry and study implementation. In line with their mandate, they really facilitated our work in Brazil.
Another important part of my job was to check in regularly with our field team. It builds morale and reminds them that the whole CDC network is here to support them while they are in the field. It is especially important in such precarious situations as the P.1 outbreak in Brazil.
I’ve learned from my work in sub-Saharan Africa that transparent and honest communication influences the outcome of any international collaboration. Developing that trust and relationship with our counterparts overseas is always the necessary first step in any global response.
Disconnecting Can be a Challenge
The biggest challenge on this, and previous deployments, is the inability to fully disconnect from the response. Normally, home life could serve as a respite and diversion from the mission; however, the daily realities of living through the COVID-19 pandemic while living and breathing the response during the workday can be overwhelming at times.
When not on field deployment, a silver lining to working at home is the unique chance to spy on the wildlife that frequents my backyard. I have learned that I share our environment with coyotes, barred owls, and red-tailed hawks.
I also have explored ways to maintain social ties while protecting myself and others from COVID-19. A few colleagues and I live within biking distance of Lullwater Park, near CDC, and we occasionally bike there and catch up while sitting 6 feet apart on the lawn. I also enjoy hiking and spending time outdoors. We are lucky to live in Atlanta, where outdoor activities are available year-round.
The next time I deploy, I am confident that my colleagues will be ready to make a difference, whether they are in Atlanta or one of CDC’s global offices. CDC has a multinational, diverse, and selfless workforce that is passionate about global public health.