Three Microbiologists: Public Health Workers Making an Impact in Houston
By CDC Foundation
Kadeshia Earl spends hours with her colleagues, Dr. Xi Pan and Laura Duarte, in a lab with samples of a deadly virus. It’s tedious work—safety and efficiency are paramount. Precision is critical. Each sample needs to be processed, cleaned, batched, extracted for RNA and tested for the presence of COVID-19. Through their laboratory work, patients will find out if they are negative or positive for the virus. These women are microbiologists for the Houston Health Department and are a critical part of the response to COVID-19.
Houston, TX, is the fourth most populous city in the nation. In July, the Houston region had surpassed over 100,000 COVID-19 cases with more than half of those cases within the city of Houston. The health department needed help. In order to provide support, the CDC Foundation, hired surge public health workers through the CDC Foundation’s COVID-19 Corps. These surge staff in Houston as well as others in some of the country’s most-impacted areas, from Detroit, MI, to Santa Clara, CA, were hired with the help of a $15 million donation provided by TikTok, one of CDC Foundation’s largest corporate gifts.
“All of us at TikTok stand with the brave public health responders who are on the frontlines of this crisis, and we thank them for their service. We’re honored to support the CDC Foundation’s COVID-19 Corps so that communities across America can perform critical tests and heal those in need,” said Michael Beckerman, VP of U.S. Public Policy for TikTok.
Stephen Williams, director of the Houston Health Department believes the surge hiring has been instrumental to Houston’s COVID-19 response. “Thanks to the CDC Foundation, we have additional staffing support for our public health lab, testing sites, case investigation and contact tracing unit, and other areas of the department that are vital to responding to the pandemic to slow the spread and save lives in Houston.”
On average, the lab processes around 500 to 1,000 samples a week, said Duarte. “Everyone has to pitch in and see where they can help, even if it isn’t their usual role,” she said. “It’s really all hands on deck at this point.” And with flu season approaching and COVID-19 still spreading throughout the country, Duarte anticipates many more cases in the upcoming months.
Fighting COVID Through Collaboration
Earl thinks the reason for the effectiveness of the response in Houston is the collaborative spirit of her department. Duarte and Pan agree. Duarte reflects on a day during their busiest period: “There was a moment where I felt really stressed out and overwhelmed that I couldn’t get the job done. But a lot of my co-workers, they tagged in, and we were able to switch out and give each other 15 minute breaks…that was a nice moment that really connected us and we were all realizing how heavy the workload is.”
This collaborative spirit is what drove each of these microbiologists to work with CDC Foundation’s COVID-19 Corps. “The CDC Foundation’s principles and values are based on collaborative efforts so I thought that it would be amazing to join the team,” said Earl. “I’m honored to be a part of it.” Duarte also wanted to be a part of an organization making an impact. “I wanted to join the CDC Foundation because I thought it was a good opportunity to get a lot of experience working with a really good, well-known organization,” said Duarte.
Answering the Call, From Grad Students to Seasoned Vets
The experience of working on the frontlines of the COVID-19 response has had a lasting impact on each of these women. Duarte, who is working toward a career in marine biology considers this a great opportunity. “I took this position knowing it would be a lot of hours,” Duarte said. But she says it’s worth it. “I feel very fulfilled. I enjoy what I do because I’m actually helping out my community. I’m making sure everyone gets their results and gets contacted.” She sums it up simply, “I love it here.”
Through her work in the laboratory, Earl says she has seen how COVID-19 is impacting vulnerable communities. “I knew how affected the vulnerable populations were, but I don’t think I realized firsthand the effect until coronavirus hit,” said Earl. She also shares that this experience has helped direct her career goals and solidify her interest in public health. “It allowed me to see the big picture of public health,” Earl said.
Not all employees came into this experience for professional growth, however. At 70 years old, Pan came out of retirement to help with the emergency response. With a long career in public health working on tuberculosis initiatives in both China and the United States, Pan brings extensive experience to the department’s response effort. “I retired last year, but when the COVID-19 pandemic started, I knew public health departments would really need people to come to work,” she said. So she joined the CDC Foundation’s COVID-19 Corps in Houston, where she had worked for many years, to contribute to the response.
These three microbiologists are a few examples of people with diverse backgrounds and experience joining the CDC Foundation COVID-19 Corps in communities across the country. Microbiologists, contact tracers, epidemiologists and many other public health staff are working together to make an impact. Earl, Duarte and Pan knew taking these jobs would mean long hours and tedious, high-stake work. However, they all answered the call to use their experience to serve their communities.