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TALLAHASSEE — Last week, Florida health officials found themselves overwhelmed. The state’s disease experts were working around the clock to trace the rapidly spreading coronavirus, and the state needed more of them.
A lot more.
But that posed a problem: How in the world do you find public health professionals who investigate the patterns and causes of disease — otherwise known as epidemiologists — who weren’t already working to combat the once-in-a-lifetime pandemic?
Answer: Florida’s universities.
In an unprecedented gathering of resources, the state has recruited 100 professors and students from five universities to help the state understand the coronavirus, known as COVID-19, and how it’s spreading.
Those professors and students are being hired part-time to do what epidemiologists do: interview people with coronavirus about their history and symptoms, trace their contacts and enter that information into databases.
They will be working in coordination with the Florida Department of Health’s 264 infectious disease epidemiologists, but they will not be going out in the field to interview coronavirus patients. Instead, they’ll be conducting interviews by phone.
Academics and health officials say they couldn’t remember the state ever going on such a hiring spree.
“To gather the need for this many epidemiologists, I don’t know if there’s ever been a situation like this,” said Janice Zgibor, a professor and associate dean for academic affairs at the University of South Florida’s College of Public Health. “I haven’t heard of it in my lifetime.”
And the state did it over a weekend. On Saturday, officials starting contacting universities. By Sunday, they had hundreds of applicants.
Zgibor, who has a Ph.D. in epidemiology, was asked to “gather the troops” at USF. When she heard the idea, she thought it was “genius.”
The idea came from Department of Health Deputy Secretary Shamarial Roberson, who has a background in epidemiology.
“Based on that experience, I knew exactly where to find them,” Roberson said.
The professors and students are coming from Florida State University, the University of Florida, Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, the University of South Florida and University of Central Florida.
While the public often thinks of epidemiologists as people walking around in biohazard suits, the study of infectious diseases is just one specialty in the field. Epidemiology is a broad field that includes the study of chronic diseases, opioids and vaccines, for example.
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Regardless of the specialty, epidemiologists share common data-driven methods. They need the who/what/when/where of diseases to track common traits and understand how they spread: How old is the person? How did they contract it? Who else might they have shared it with?
For that reason, not all the students and professors are necessarily infectious disease experts. Cindy Prins, director of the University of Florida’s Master of Public Health program, said the state was looking for people with experience interviewing patients and analyzing data.
She had no problem finding people willing to sign up. She said the state chose 25 doctoral and masters students and five faculty members, including herself.
“For students in particular, they just really want to help right now,” said Prins, who has a background in infection control. “They want to do something.”
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