Apr. 21 2020

Our Alumni on the COVID-19 Front Lines

As governments around the world weigh the toll COVID-19 has wrought on population health and the economy, a cadre of Columbia Mailman School grads has applied their expertise to address the crisis, from contact tracing to support for especially vulnerable populations. Six alumni shared updates on their efforts on the public health front lines.

Patrick Dawson, PhD ’19, is a member of the elite Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. COVID-19 is not his first brush with a coronavirus; Dawson wrote his dissertation on MERS. Beginning in late January, he deployed to Los Angeles, shortly after the city reported its first case—a traveler from Wuhan, China, the origin of the outbreak. “I was there for two weeks working with the L.A. County Department of Public Health interviewing contacts, tracking down contacts who were on the same flight as the case, working with the CDC Quarantine Station staff at LAX, and helping get getting contacts swabbed and tested,” he says.

EIS officer Stephanie Kujawski, MPH ’12, PhD ’18, works in the Respiratory Viruses Branch, which includes coronaviruses as one of its main respiratory pathogens. As part of CDC’s initial response efforts for COVID-19, she contributed to the development of data collection tools and questionnaires for field teams, created databases to track initial COVID-19 cases, and analyzed epidemiologic and laboratory data. In mid-March, Kujawski and her colleagues, including Dawson, published a detailed case report on the first 12 patients with COVID-19 in the United States; the findings are published in the journal Nature Medicine.

Carolyn Herzig, PhD ’15, is a member of the CDC's International Infection Control Program where she has supported the COVID-19 response since early February. Herzig deployed to Japan to support the U.S. Embassy during the repatriation of U.S. citizens who were passengers of the Diamond Princess cruise ship and to provide technical assistance. In early February, the largest cluster of COVID-19 cases outside mainland China occurred on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, which was quarantined in the port of Yokohama, Japan. Herzig is one of the authors of a CDC report on COVID-19 outbreaks on cruise ships which notes that nearly one-fifth of the 3,711 passengers and crew tested positive for SARS-CoV-2.

Beginning in March, Captain Kenneth L. Dominguez, MPH ’88, a physician and epidemiologist in the U.S. Public Health Service, provided phone consults on COVID-19. “Public health officers from various airports across the country call the remote quarantine medical office with questions about situations that are out of the ordinary involving travelers at the various airport quarantine stations,” he explained. “We helped them determine next steps for those travelers.” Currently, he serves on COVID-19 Response on the CDC Deployment Assessment and Monitoring Team, a cohort of healthcare workers who monitor symptoms among CDC employees deployed on the COVID-19 response through a text monitoring system.

Eamon Penney, MPH ’17, works for Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) in Rakhine, Myanmar, where he helps to coordinate the NGO’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Even before the outbreak began, MSF and other humanitarian agencies worked to meet the health needs of 128,000 ethnic Rohingya who have been confined to displacement camps since 2012. The group does the same for approximately 140,000 individuals displaced through a year-old regional armed conflict. “Once COVID is in the camps, isolation and contact tracing isn't effective because of the density,” says Penney. “So most of our efforts are about trying to delay COVID from reaching the camps and ensuring that primary and emergency healthcare services continue.

Closer to campus, Lucretia Jones, DrPH, MPH ‘01, has overseen the General Surveillance Unit in Communicable Disease at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene for 16 years. During the COVID-19 pandemic, she has the responsibility of managing the Surveillance Investigations Unit, a group of approximately 100 disease detectives who perform COVID case investigations. Numerous Columbia Mailman alumni are working on COVID in New York City; those with whom Jones works closely include Lan Li, MPH ’14, Alexander Davidson, MPH ’14, Stephanie Ngai, MPH ’14, and Emily McGibbon, MPH ’04.

Jones explains: “Staff interview patients, healthcare providers, and next of kin of deceased, elicit contacts of cases, and conduct contact tracing. Staff also conduct chart reviews of patients’ electronic health records to obtain clinical info on patient’s risk for COVID, their underlying health conditions, and course of illness, as well as demographic data to identify health disparities.”

In April, Dawson, the CDC officer who did contact tracing in Los Angeles, helped design a COVID-19 research study in Milwaukee. He and his team interviewed members of households where one person was diagnosed with COVID-19 but where all other household members were initially asymptomatic. The goal is to gather evidence of secondary infection rates within households, risk factors for transmission within households, and whether self-collected nasal swabs are as effective as provider-collected swabs in detecting infection.

“Being a part of the CDC COVID-19 response has been a valuable training experience in frontline public health epidemiology, and has allowed me to experience the human side of the pandemic,” says Dawson. “Meeting families who have been directly impacted by COVID-19 who graciously welcomed us into their homes so they could contribute to science that may benefit their community and country has been inspiring to me as a scientist and fellow citizen.”