TAMPA — The University of South Florida has won $8 million in federal grants to help train public health workers across the state to respond to hurricanes, outbreaks of disease and other threats.
Both five-year grants are going to USF's College of Public Health, the only institution in Florida to receive either grant.
The money comes at a critical time.
As the state's budget has been squeezed in recent years, the Florida Department of Health has cut 316 positions and half of its budget for travel.
That has increased the need for accessible and cost-effective training for public health workers.
"Unfortunately, when budgets get cut, training gets cut, and training is the best way … to help people work smarter and more effectively," said Danielle Landis, deputy director of USF's Center for Leadership in Public Health Practice.
Not only that, but an aging workforce means that state agencies such as the Department of Health could lose up to 55 percent of their most experienced employees in coming years, increasing the need for trained replacements.
In a time of tight budgets, the grants allow the state, local public health agencies and the university to leverage their resources to enhance preparedness, said Rhonda White, chief of the Department of Health's bureau of preparedness and response.
"It's a nice partnership," she said.
One grant will bring USF $4.75 million from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to develop a Sarasota-based Preparedness and Emergency Response Learning Center.
Its goal: to help communities throughout Florida learn from Sarasota County's nationally recognized system for preparing for, responding to and recovering from disasters.
That approach brings together public health agencies, emergency response officials, faith-based organizations, hospitals, schools and businesses.
Sarasota officials saw the need for increased coordination after Hurricane Charley ripped through neighboring Charlotte County in 2004.
Though Sarasota County was generally spared, Charlotte residents soon filled up its special-needs shelter and swamped its community agencies with requests for help.
"We looked at those two things and said, 'We need to be better prepared,' " said Bill Little, director of the Sarasota County Health Department.
The county's resulting community disaster preparedness committee led Sarasota leaders to think ahead: How to make the best use of volunteers? How to address mental health issues in a disaster? How to share information between organizations with different computer systems? How to respond to the needs of the elderly? Special needs patients? Children in foster homes?
Those efforts already have paid off, helping Sarasota officials prepare over a weekend for hundreds of refugees from Hurricane Katrina.
The new training center that USF will establish in Sarasota is expected to draw teams of trainees from counties across Florida. Training is expected to start this summer.
"We have counties already who are saying, 'Ooh-ooh, we want to do this,' " Landis said.
The center also will work with state health officials to offer classroom and online courses on topics such as crisis communication, investigating and containing outbreaks of disease, and providing mental health support to emergency and health professionals who are vulnerable to disaster-related stress.
The second grant, $3.25 million from the Health and Human Resources Administration, will support a Public Health Training Center.
At first, the center will work with state officials to identify gaps in the training of state and local public health workers.
The goal is to develop training that combines classroom instruction with distance learning technologies such as podcasts, webinars and chat-room discussions.
It's not a new approach for USF. The College of Public Health was the first in the country to offer a fully distance-based master of public health degree.
In each case, the grants are expected to strengthen USF's ties to public health officials across Florida.
"What I love about both of these grants (is) they're about the importance of building relationships," Landis said.
Richard Danielson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3403.