Student Emergency Workers Provide Surge Capacity: Partnerships Benefit Public Health Students, Health Departments

Article excerpt

A 2009 MEASLES outbreak in western Pennsylvania put local health officials in a race against the clock. Preventing the contagious measles virus from spreading mandated an urgent rush to contact everyone who had passed through the waiting room of a Pittsburgh hospital--the probable source of exposure--on March 10-11.

Lacking enough trained personnel to carry out the resource-intense activity, Allegheny County Health Department epidemiologist Ronald Voorhees, MD, MPH, picked up the phone and punched out the number of a University of Pittsburgh public health organization that trains graduate students to participate in real-world investigations and emergency response activities.

Within minutes of receiving the call, members of the Student Public Health Epidemic Response Effort were mobilizing. Over a two-day period, the students joined health department staff and University of Pittsburgh Medical Center personnel in a massive phone bank activity in which more than 4,000 people known to have been exposed were contacted and interviewed.

"We needed--as quickly as possible--to make sure that anyone who had been exposed was properly immunized, and we wanted to be able to identify very quickly anybody who might develop symptoms so that we could take appropriate control measures to keep measles from spreading further in the community," Voorhees said. "The students were a critical part of the response that allowed us to control the outbreak with only five cases."

Founded in 2007, Pittsburgh's student outbreak and emergency response team is one of about 11 such volunteer organizations operating under different models at accredited graduate schools of public health. Faced with a growing demand to strengthen preparedness and response, teams of students at universities across the United States are collaborating with local, state and federal health agencies.

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"Our health department has a really small staff for the size of the county it supports, so when there is something they need surge capacity for, like an influenza clinic or an outbreak investigation as large as the measles outbreak investigation last year, they need trained people," said APHA member Rachel Bailey, MPH, incoming chair of the Student Public Health

Response Effort. …