When the DeKalb County Board of Health needed assistance
with a gastrointestinal outbreak at a local assisted care facility
in January, they called the volunteers of SORT—the Student
Outbreak Response Team, made up of 16 students from the Rollins
School of Public Health. It was an opportunity for academia and
local public health officials to meet face to face.
Last spring, Emory alumna Sara Forsting, ’01MPH, an epidemiologist
at the DeKalb County Board of Health Center for Public Health Preparedness,
began tossing around the idea of bringing the two entities together.
Forsting modeled SORT after a program of the same name at the Johns
Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She contacted her alma
mater and presented the idea to Ruth Berkelman, director of the
Center for Public Health Preparedness and Research, who was enthusiastic
and offered assistance.
In its pilot year, SORT already has given student volunteers hands-on
experience in outbreak response and investigations, developing surveys,
interviewing and contact tracing. For example, the students analyzed
data from a smallpox consent evaluation project. And, in addition
to offering extra hands, volunteers attend lectures and training
sessions taught by public health officials and hear case studies
from actual events in DeKalb County.
“The experience gives students a better understanding of how
local public health operates as they apply their newly learned skills
to real-life situations,” Forsting said. “They may even
consider pursuing a career in local public health.”
“The students have a great deal of ownership of the program,”
Berkelman added. “They provide the leadership and input on
the structure because they know the concepts they have learned in
the classroom that they want to strengthen with real experiences.”
Ariane Reeves, Forsting’s co-coordinator at the health department
and a communicable disease registered nurse, also sees the program’s
“Those in academic public health are able to have contact
with the pulse of their local community,” Reeves said. “Students
are able to apply the theoretical concepts they have learned. In
turn, local public health benefits from its ties to the academic
institution by having surge capacity for immediate needs such as
outbreaks and long-term needs such as special projects. Local public
health also benefits from the easy access to high quality educational
opportunities offered by academic public health.”
SORT is open to all students in Rollins’ master’s of
public health program. Currently, there are epidemiology, international
health and environmental health students participating.
While 16 students selected this year receive formal training, the
partnership extends to all areas of the school because SORT often
sponsors school-wide health discussions.
Recently, Rollins issued pagers to SORT participants to facilitate
the DeKalb Board of Health contacting them, if necessary. But before
students participate in outbreak
investigations or visit a site, they are provided with an overview
of the situation, tasks that need to be completed and the methods
by which to accomplish those tasks. The board provides instruction
and materials for personal protection, including hygiene products
and infection control.
“We are constantly keeping an eye out for situations where
students can assist us,” Forsting said. “Since outbreaks
are not planned, opportunities to assist can happen at any time.”
Mark Mueller, a SORT participant and second-year epidemiology student,
said the most important accomplishment of the organization is to
promote public health careers at the state and local level.
“This opportunity has allowed me to make an objective comparison
of the mobility and experience I can achieve in a career at the
local level versus the federal level,” Mueller said. “Students
need to be reminded of the successful models of state and local
public health agencies that are in their own backyard and the opportunities
they can provide.”