The Peninsula Beacon caught up with 1990 Point Loma High School graduates Dale Rose, Ph.D., and Kari Sapsis, MPH, for a Q&A about their ongoing work battling the pandemic for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A sociologist and public health scientist who’s been at CDC for over a decade, Rose is currently the chief of CDC’s Emergency Preparedness and Response branch. He guides a team of over 30 other scientists focused on enhancing the U.S. response to infectious diseases like COVID-19 and Zika.
Sapsis is a lead health communications specialist with 24 years of experience at CDC. She began her career in HIV prevention at CDC and is now in the Office on Smoking and Health.
During CDC’s ongoing COVID-19 response, the two PLHS grads are lending their efforts to CDC’s fight against the pandemic. Among those areas, their work has directly affected are the numerous Indian reservations in San Diego County, plus deployment of a CDC team to assist in the medical treatment of cross-border American residents at the San Ysidro border crossing.
Beacon: Tell us about your roles at CDC.
Rose: My role is to help oversee a task force of over 200 people who are focused on supporting state, tribal, local, and territorial health departments as they continue the fight against COVID-19.
Sapsis: During the COVID-19 emergency response, I am leading a team that provides communication support and technical assistance to CDC staff who deploy across the country to the front lines, and to state, local tribal and territorial health departments. We provide guidance, tools, and resources for creating, framing, and tailoring health and safety messages.
Beacon: Tell us what it feels like to be working on the CDC’s COVID-19 pandemic response. It must be exhilarating on the one hand, and stressful on the other, as your working against time.
Rose: Working on CDC’s COVID-19 response is incredibly meaningful to me. I am contributing to helping tackle one of the most challenging public health crises the world has faced in the last 100 years. My whole career at CDC, to date, has focused on emergency preparedness and response, so I feel like I came into this response well prepared to be able to engage and contribute.
It is an honor and privilege to work with the extraordinarily dedicated and professional staff at CDC, who bring so much talent and drive and commitment to addressing public health problems. The enormity and scale of this pandemic is really like nothing we’ve ever seen at CDC, and some days can be very hard. I’ve been working on this response since Sunday, Feb. 2, working either six or seven days a week, with an average workday of about 13 hours. That’s a lot of time at work, and not a lot of time being with my family. What keeps me going is knowing that this virus is not going to go away by itself; and that if there’s anything I can continue to do to help shorten or lessen the severity of this pandemic or help some jurisdiction reduce or prevent transmission, I will do it. And then I can get back to my family sooner.
Sapsis: I’m honored to be part of the CDC team that is working on the COVID-19 emergency response. This is what we trained for. We are all dedicated to protecting people and saving lives. While it is personally stressful and we work long hours, seven days a week, I would not have it any other way. If I can make a small impact on what is the worst health crisis our country has faced in my lifetime, then I want to do that.
I’ve worked on several emergency responses during my career, including H1N1, Ebola and Zika, and they are always exciting, fast-paced, stressful, and emotionally difficult. But it is also rewarding to contribute to such important issues. Promoting health and protecting lives is the reason I work in public health.
Inherently if there is a public health emergency, it is affecting the lives of real people, and that can be sad and at times overwhelming. Like everyone else, I worry about my own health and about my family, especially my mom and aunt who are in their 80s. And I am saddened by the negative impact this pandemic has had on so many communities. But I am also hopeful. I work with dedicated and talented people at CDC and across the country on the front lines. And I am inspired by the amazing innovation, collaboration, and acts of kindness that I hear about each day.
Beacon: Did you ever imagine that you’d have a key role working during a national emergency?
Rose: CDC plays a major role in responding to public health and other national emergencies. I have worked in preparedness and response for my whole CDC career (11-plus years), and have had the honor and privilege of working on responses such as the 2014-15 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the 2016-2017 Zika response, our agency’s response to Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, the 2018 Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and now the COVID-19 pandemic.
I think earlier in my career, there was a bit of a “wow” factor in being a part of this incredible agency’s response efforts to national or global public health crises. Admittedly, I’m more used to it now, but where I still retain my awe is in realizing how lucky I am to be working for such an amazing organization, filled with dedicated and talented scientists, public health advisors, support staff, and more, who are committed to data-driven approaches and strategies to address hard public health problems.
Sapsis: For most of my career at CDC I have worked on infectious disease topics, and I’ve participated in emergency preparedness planning during that time. But despite that, I did not imagine anything quite like this. The scale of the COVID-19 pandemic and the complexities of fighting this across many countries at the same time are unprecedented. I’m honored to be part of this emergency response.
Beacon: Tell us about this task force you’re both involved in.
Rose: CDC’s COVID-19 response is organized by the task force – with each task force focusing on different areas or needs. The State, Tribal, Local and Territorial Support Task Force is focused on:
Supporting health departments by engaging with them to understand their needs and then work to address those needs by providing guidance, tools, resources, technical assistance, field teams, and/or referrals to partners or subject matter experts.
Enhancing the public health workforce and tapping into innovative technologies to ensure a more effective response. Our Task Force has deployed over 230 teams comprised of more than 1,000 CDC staff to jurisdictions throughout the country as part of the COVID-19 response. We provide technical assistance and other support related to epidemiology and surveillance, case investigation and contact tracing, data management and analysis, informatics, health communication and community engagement, infection prevention and control, and worker safety and health. Our task force and our agency are committed to carrying out this response through a health equity lens.
When we send teams out, our main aim is to provide jurisdictional partners with the support they have requested. Often, we also collaborate to generate important knowledge about the virus, how it is transmitted, risk factors for infection or severe illness, and strategies to help prevent or reduce transmission.
When news reports cite CDC “studies” or data, it often comes from CDC fieldwork undertaken in collaboration with state, tribal, local, and territorial partners. Importantly, these efforts have informed our agency’s response as well as guidance for the public. CDC field deployments have contributed to guidance for:
- Long-term care facilities including use of serial testing as a containment strategy;
- Infection prevention and control, and testing strategies, in correctional and detention facilities;
- Targeted interventions and prevention efforts among workers at meat and poultry processing facilities.
Beacon: Sounds like you’re both members of a team that is investigating not only COVID but other infectious diseases as well.
Rose: There is more than 10,000 thousand staff at CDC. When we are not in emergency response, we all have our usual “day jobs.” Mine is leading a branch of over 30 very talented scientists and public health advisors whose work focuses on helping to prepare for and respond to biological threats such as anthrax, smallpox, and plague, as well as other emerging infectious diseases. Our branch is divided into three teams, which focus on infectious disease modeling, developing and implementing operational plans for public health response, and providing regulatory and clinical guideline support for medical countermeasures for use against biological and other threat agents. We are very fortunate that this incredible expertise can be used in emergency responses, such as COVID-19, where all these skills can be – and have been – put to use.
Sapsis: When I am not working on the COVID-19 emergency response, I lead a team of health communicators in the Division of Viral Hepatitis. We develop educational campaigns for the public and health care providers. We also promote key guidance through the website and other channels.
Beacon: What is the likelihood of other pandemics?
Rose: We can’t predict the likelihood of future pandemics, but ongoing research on infectious diseases of all types is a cornerstone of the CDC’s role in public health.
Beacon: How can we guard against future pandemics? Has this go-around with COVID taught us any lessons about responding?
Rose: All pandemics are different, and the final lessons of COVID-19 are yet to be written. Ongoing research into diseases past and present are of vital importance to responding to future diseases.
Beacon: Some are convinced that COVID is just going to somehow “fade” away. Is that wishful thinking?
Rose: We can’t predict how people will view COVID-19 in the future, but at this time, recommended measures like social distancing and wearing masks in public are important for people to keep in mind.
Beacon: Dale, tell us about your role as a sociologist and public health scientist.
Rose: The social sciences such as sociology are an important component of public health. Public health issues, by definition, have a “social” component to them. Even diseases caused by a virus, bacterium, or toxic chemical have a social context: groups that have fewer resources, or who experience systemic prejudice, are often at greater risk for exposure, illness, and even death. COVID-19 is, unfortunately, an all too good reminder of that. For example, as of Aug. 12, based on cases reported to CDC with race/ethnicity data, around 31% of cases nationally were Hispanic/Latinx (vs approximately 18% of the population, based on 2017 Census Bureau data), approximately 20% of cases were Black, non-Hispanic (vs. 12.3% of the population), and 1.2% of cases were American Indian/Alaska Native (vs. 0.7% of the population). These sorts of health disparities are strong evidence that much of the fight against COVID-19 and other diseases is really a fight to improve social determinants of health.
Beacon: Kari, tell us what it’s like to be a lead health communications specialist.
Sapsis: When I am not working on the COVID-19 emergency response, I develop educational campaigns for the public and health care providers. I’ve led campaigns on topics as varied as pre-teen vaccination, breast cancer in young women, and smoking cessation. I love listening to people in the community to find out the questions they have and their barriers to good health, so we can create resources and information that they can use. I love my job as a health communicator because it is creative and multidisciplinary. One of my most important roles is to translate complex science and health recommendations into digestible and actionable messages.
Beacon: Was there anything you learned at PLHS that encouraged or inspired you to choose your career paths?
Rose: I have incredibly fond memories of Point Loma High School, and I consider myself fortunate to have been a student there. It was there that I cultivated an interest in science, as well as an appreciation for teachers and all public servants who have dedicated their careers to helping others. It was also a great place to see students so engaged in community service.
Sapsis: I feel very lucky to have attended such a great public school. I had some amazing teachers and counselors who were great mentors. And, my experiences as a peer educator and doing volunteer work with Key Club and Interact Club helped form my interest in public service. Even in high school, I was driven to support social justice and to help my peers gain access to accurate health education information.
Beacon: What advice would you give someone pursuing a similar career path?
Rose: Listen to yourself, be attuned to what your interests and passions are, and then explore, explore, explore. Something will click, something will stick, and that’s the direction you go.
Sapsis: The best way to learn more about any career path is to talk with people who work in that field. Find out how they got where they are, what skills you need, and how you can get involved. And I cannot emphasize enough how helpful it is to do some volunteer work — that personal experience is so formative.