The Student Epidemic Action Leaders (SEAL) team prepares graduate students for field assignments at the Washington State Department of Health and local health jurisdictions. These budding “disease detectives” enroll in training courses, attend in-person meetings, and complete at-home assignments to develop their knowledge and skills in communicable disease and applied epidemiology. Learn more about the vision behind the team.
Since the program began in Spring of 2016, students have provided over 230 hours of support for assignments ranging from outbreak investigation, disease surveillance, emergency response, and more.
Their stories are below:
Mary Chan, Emily Begnel, Rachel Silverman, Lindsay Allen, and Katrina Deardorff
Zika Virus at Public Health - Seattle & King County
When a patient requires Zika testing, doctors have to get approval from the health department before sending a patient to have a sample collected. This influx in demand can be challenging for local health departments who are often already stretched for resources. “We were in incident command managing multiple outbreaks on top of increased routine work,” said Krista Rietberg of Public Health – Seattle and King County.
This SEAL team was assigned to handle requests from health care facilities for Zika testing through the CDC. This required calling and coordinating with health care providers, labs, and sometimes patients themselves, as well as the WA Department of Health. The team also helped answer any general questions related to Zika from health care providers and King County residents. “These students were so incredibly helpful. We would have been lost without them,” Rietberg added.
Each student became very knowledgeable about the criteria related to Zika testing for specific groups such as asymptomatic pregnant women. “We were able to gain hands-on experience doing actual public health work,” says team member Mary Chan, “honing our skills in health care professional, patient, and stakeholder communication, as well as be a part of the ongoing dialogue about evolving testing criteria for an emerging disease.”
Kali Turner, Molly Feder, Staci Kvak, and Mary Chan
Foodborne Complaint System at Public Health – Seattle & King County
This SEAL team interviewed key stakeholders at other state health departments about their centralized reporting systems for foodborne complaints. This information was compiled into a presentation for Washington Department of Health (WA DOH) to support the development of a potential reporting system in Washington. “The team’s work is so appreciated and will be helpful nationwide,” said Melissa Kemperman of WA DOH. She was so pleased with the SEALs presentation that she sent it to a CDC partner who intends to use the presentation in an internal ‘how-to’ toolkit on developing a complaint system.
The SEALs also developed a survey for local health departments in Washington to gauge interest in and readiness for a centralized foodborne complaint system in this state. Foodborne illness complaint systems allow the public to easily report a suspected food-related illness. These important surveillance tools detect outbreaks that may not otherwise be recognized. With these systems in place, the lag time between illness and reporting is lessened, leading to more timely response and investigation.
Sarah McNabb, Izzy Brandstetter, and Maggie Lind
Zika Virus Database at Washington State Department of Health
Getting tested for Zika is different from a flu or strep test, which can be done in a doctor’s office. Only a few health departments in the country are certified to test for Zika, so most samples are shipped to the CDC. The CDC receives hundreds of samples each week and then sends the results back to the local health departments.
The team helped build an Access database to electronically organize patient information for Zika virus tests, which had previously been paper records. “The training we’re getting with SEAL team is so important and hands-on for people that want to go into public health practice,” said team member Sarah McNabb. “We were able to see how priorities have to shift to accommodate new health concerns. Until recently, no one was working on Zika and then it became a health emergency. I think we were able to help a lot by just having extra hands involved."
A Student Epidemic Action Leaders (SEAL) Team Support Fund has been established to support this important work.