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ATLANTA -- When the DeKalb County Board of Health needed assistance with a gastrointestinal outbreak at a local assisted care facility in January, they called the volunteers of SORT the Student Outbreak Response Team, made up of 16 students from Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health. It was an opportunity for academia and local public health officials to meet face to face.
Last spring, Emory alumna Sara Forsting, an epidemiologist at the DeKalb County Board of Health Center for Public Health Preparedness began tossing around an idea to bring the two entities together. Forsting modeled SORT after a program of the same name at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She contacted her alma mater, and presented the idea to Ruth Berkelman, MD, director of the Center for Public Health Preparedness and Research, who was enthusiastic about the idea and offered assistance.
In its pilot year, SORT has already given student volunteers hands-on experience in outbreak response and investigations, developing surveys, interviewing and contact tracing. The students have also analyzed data from a smallpox consent evaluation project. In addition to offering extra hands, the student volunteers attend lectures and training sessions taught by public health officials and hear case studies from actual events in DeKalb County.
"The experience gives students a better understanding of how local public health operates as they apply their newly learned skilled to real-life situations," Forsting says. "They may even consider pursuing a career in local public health."
Dr. Berkelman adds, "The students have a great deal of ownership of the program. They provide the leadership and input on the structure because they know the concepts they have learned in the classroom that they want to strengthen with real experiences."
Forsting’s co-coordinator at the health department is Ariane Reeves, RN, a communicable disease nurse. She believes that the collaboration is beneficial in many ways.
"Those in academic public health are able to have contact with the pulse of their local community. Students are able to apply the theoretical concepts that they have learned to real life situations," Reeves says. "In turn, local public health benefits from its ties to the academic institution by having surge capacity for immediate needs such as outbreaks and long-term needs such as special projects. Local public health also benefits from the easy access to high quality educational opportunities offered by academic public health."
The opportunity to participate in SORT is open to all students in the master of public health program at the Rollins School of Public Health. Currently, there are epidemiology, international health, and environmental health students participating. While 16 students selected this year receive formal training, the partnership extends to all areas of the Rollins School of Public Health because SORT often sponsors school-wide health discussions.
Recently, the school issued pagers to SORT participants to facilitate the DeKalb County Board of Health contacting them if necessary. But before students participate in outbreak investigations or visit a site, they are provided with an overview of the situation, the tasks that need to be completed, and the methods by which to accomplish the tasks. The DeKalb County Board of Health provides instruction and materials for personal protection, including hand hygiene products and infection control.
"We are constantly keeping an eye out for situations where students can assist us," Forsting said. "Since outbreaks are not planned, opportunities to assist can happen at any time."
Mark Mueller, a SORT participant and second year epidemiology student, says the most important accomplishment of the organization is that it is opening of the minds of students like himself to the idea of a public health career at the state and local level.
"This opportunity has allowed me to make an objective comparison of the mobility and experience I can achieve in a career at the local level versus the federal level," Mueller says. "Students need to be reminded of the successful models of state and local public health agencies that are in own backyard and the opportunities they can provide. These can often be overshadowed by the proximity and availability of positions with the federal agencies and national organizations that we are lucky enough to be exposed to as Emory students."
NOTE: On Thursday, April 10, SORT student volunteers will attend a mini-training session on food-borne outbreaks presented by Renee Watson, RNC of the Fulton County Epidemiology Department. The session will be held from 5:15 PM 6:00 PM at the DeKalb County Board of Health, 445 Winn Way, Decatur. Photograph and interview opportunities are available. Please contact a media representative listed above.
The Center for Public Health Preparedness and Research (CPHPR) provides resources and expertise to help public health students and professionals to address the threats posed by emerging infectious diseases, including bioterrorism. Faculty and students affiliated with the CPHPR conduct research and assess policy to enhance public health preparedness in Georgia and beyond.