National Public Health Week: COVID-19 From the Front Lines

April 4, 2022

Note: This article was originally published in April 2020. It has been updated to reflect interviewees' new positions and affiliated institutions.

Public health professionals are on the front lines fighting COVID-19 around the world, whether they are performing diagnostic testing for SARS-CoV-2 or educating the public about proper prevention measures. This week is National Public Health Week, and now, more than ever, it is time to recognize these selfless, dedicated individuals and the sacrifices they are making, working countless hours and putting their health at risk. In honor of National Public Health Week, ASM interviewed a few of the incredible scientists who have made it their mission to protect our health.

Meet the Interviewees

Portrait of Michael Pentella, Ph.D.
Michael Pentella, Ph.D., of the University of Iowa.
Michael Pentella, Ph.D., D(ABMM) is a clinical professor of epidemiology at the University of Iowa, College of Public Health and Director of the University of Iowa State Hygienic Laboratory (Iowa’s state public health laboratory). He has worked in the field of microbiology for more than 4 decades, with special interest in laboratory methods and infectious disease prevention. Pentella also serves on the American Society for Microbiology Laboratory Practices Subcommittee. Pentella has spoken publicly on multiple panels about the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In my dual role as the director of the state hygienic lab, as well as a clinical professor of public health, we have been greatly impacted by COVID-19 in our day-to-day activities. Our lab is responsible for performing diagnostic testing. We are in ‘incident command mode,’ mustering all the resources of the organization and using preparedness tools to meet the needs of the citizens of Iowa. This pandemic is a very serious one. We are being very cautious in the lab to mitigate risks of exposure, practicing social distancing and washing our hands regularly. Since I began working in the field of public health in 2002, I have seen epidemics of West Nile, mumps, the H1N1 flu (2009), Ebola (2014) and Zika (2016). It is important during an outbreak to keep calm and do your best possible work: we need to let people know that we are able to respond effectively.”

Portrait of Anthony Tran, Ph.D.
Anthony Tran, Ph.D., of the District of Columbia Public Health Laboratory.
Source: Anthony Tran
Anthony Tran, Ph.D., D(ABMM), (now Laboratory Director of the Food and Drig Administration's San Francisco Laboratory) served as the Director of the District of Columbia Public Health Laboratory at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. He has more than 15 years of public health and clinical laboratory experience at state, federal and local levels. He is also a member of ASM’s Subcommittee on Postdoctoral Educational Programs and ASM’s Personnel Standards and Workforce Subcommittee. Tran holds a Dr.PH in Infectious Diseases and Management from the University of California, Berkeley.

“Right now, it is all-hands-on-deck. Public health labs were the first labs to receive COVID-19 tests, before hospitals. In D.C., we are bringing on 5 different types of COVID-19 EUA diagnostic tests, to be as flexible and innovative as possible to ensure that supply chain is not an issue as well as reducing turnaround time. We are setting up drive-through and walk-up testing for first responders, health care workers and high risk populations to increase accessibility to folks to need testing the most. A big problem has been how long testing is taking privately, so this is where public health laboratories step in to help. We report results within 24-48 hours after receipt. It has been nonstop work to ensure we have supply chains, and access to reagents and swabs, etc. It is crucial to be as prepared as possible, but honestly each outbreak is different. This is an unprecedented event, a true global pandemic.

It is situations like this, where you see you can be of help. You don’t go into this field for money or the notoriety. When public health labs are doing their jobs, no one knows who they are—people are eating safe food, drinking clean water and breathing clean air and that means we are doing our jobs. My reward is at the end of the day, when I go home and hug my family, I know that my work is keeping them safe.”

Portrait of Venigalla Rao, Ph.D.
Venigalla Rao, Ph.D., of the Catholic University of America.
Source: Venigalla Rao
Venigalla Rao, Ph.D., is a biology professor and the Director of Catholic University’s Center for Advanced Training in Cell and Molecular Biology, where he has worked for more than 30 years. He holds a Ph.D. in Biochemistry from the Indian Institute of Science and completed his postdoctoral research at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Rao’s lab examines how microbes, in particular bacteriophage T4, can be used to develop vaccines for diseases such as COVID-19. Read more about Rao’s coronavirus research.

"A couple of months ago, it became clear that COVID-19 would likely evolve into a global pandemic and that we must begin work and contribute our T4 knowledge and technology to address this problem. We dropped some of our ongoing projects and directed our resources toward designing vaccine candidates. Our current work uses bacteriophage T4 as a platform for vaccine delivery. Our research is quite broad—in the sense that we collaborate with structural biologists, immunologists and biophysicists—as we try to understand the molecular mechanisms of assembly and genome packaging by bacteriophage T4 and translate some of the basic knowledge to biomedical applications, such as vaccine design and gene therapy. Right now, we are researching the possibility of using T4 as a platform to deliver vaccine candidates that protect against SARS-CoV-2 infection, the virus that causes COVID-19. We hope to generate useful vaccine candidates in the near future to address this very serious coronavirus crisis.”

Portrait of Marie-Claire Rowlinson, Ph.D.
Marie-Claire Rowlinson, Ph.D., of the Florida Bureau of Public Health Laboratories.
Source: Marie-Claire Rowlinson
Prior to joining Wadsworth Center’s Bacterial Diseases Laboratory in 2021 as the Chief of the Bacterial Disease Laboratory, Marie-Claire Rowlinson, Ph.D., D(ABMM), was the Assistant Laboratory Director and CLIA Laboratory Director at the state public health laboratory in Jacksonville, Fla. Rowlinson is also a division councilor, representing Division Y. Public Health on ASM’s Council on Microbial Sciences.

“The film ‘Outbreak’ came out in 1995, right before I started my undergraduate degree in medical microbiology, and I wanted to be Dustin Hoffman, fighting an emerging infectious disease. Another inspiration for me was doing a lot of my postdoctoral work in Africa and becoming interested in global health and the importance of health equity. Public health is about providing health services to everybody who needs [them], and I want to be a part of that mission. When we do a good job, when we prevent disease, when we save lives and when we provide important health care to those that wouldn’t necessarily always have access to it—that’s rewarding.”

Portrait of William Glover, Ph.D.
William Glover, Ph.D., of the North Carolina State Laboratory of Public Health.
Source: William Glover
William Glover, Ph.D., D(ABMM), Assistant Laboratory Director at the North Carolina State Laboratory of Public Health, provides administrative and technical oversight to all the laboratories that make up the Infectious Diseases Unit. Glover holds a Ph.D. in Molecular Microbiology and Immunology from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He is a member of ASM’s Subcommittee on Postdoctoral Educational Programs and ASM’s Clinical Microbiology Mentoring Subcommittee.

“There are 3 main challenges I can think of when it comes to fighting a pandemic:

  1. Balancing the response of COVID-19 while trying not to worry about yourself potentially becoming sick, or someone in your family becoming sick, is a big challenge that many people are facing.
  2. Taking care of yourself and avoiding burnout in preparation for a response that will need to be sustained over a period of months—not weeks.
  3. Keeping up with constantly changing information. Navigating the sheer volume, identifying misinformation and keeping up with all the new tests has been a challenge while responding to COVID-19. There is a lot of misinformation going around regarding who can and cannot become infected. This is a novel virus, and anyone can become infected. It is blind to race, color, ethnicity, national origin, religion, disability, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation and socioeconomic status. The only way to get through this pandemic is together as a society.”

Portrait of Kara Levinson, Ph.D.
Kara Levinson, Ph.D., of the Tennessee Public Health Laboratory.
Kara Levinson, Ph.D., MPH, D(ABMM), is the deputy director of the Tennessee Public Health Laboratory. Levinson is a former fellow of the CDC’s Laboratory Leadership Service (LLS) and has worked at many public health laboratories. Levinson serves on ASM’s Executive Board of Directors and holds a Ph.D. in Immunology and Infectious Diseases from the State University of New York at Albany and an M.P.H. in Hospital and Molecular Epidemiology from the University of Michigan.

“The best part about my job is knowing that I am positively impacting people’s health, even if they don’t know it. Working in the laboratory, you don’t have the same level of contact with patients, but many of those clinical and epidemiological decisions are based on laboratory information. The better we can communicate about laboratory testing and interpreting test results, the better we can serve everyone. Public health workers, including laboratorians, don’t always get the spotlight, but they play a critical role in the health of our community as well as individual health, especially during outbreaks.

I wish more people were aware of public health as a career option; it is such a rewarding job, and more people need to know about it. If you’re at all interested, reach out and get involved. There are fellowships, internships and ways to job shadow at your state/local public health laboratory. There isn’t always a specific path into public health as a career, but a variety of skillsets can be applied, whether it’s training in informatics, statistics, basic research or clinical expertise. I’ve found that once people see what public health work entails and are bitten by the public health bug, they are in it for life.”

Author: Ashley Mayrianne Robbins, MELP

Ashley Mayrianne Robbins, MELP
A. Mayrianne Champagne is a Communications Manager at the National Geographic Society.