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MPH students dive in to support COVID-19 response

Sep. 3, 2020, 8:52 AM


by Jake Lowary

Graduates from Vanderbilt’s Master in Public Health (MPH) program didn’t plan to become front-line soldiers against the COVID-19 global pandemic, but several have found themselves putting their training — and their career goals — front and center.

The MPH program began 30 years ago as a mechanism to enhance the knowledge and skills of physicians training and practicing medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Today, it accepts a diverse group of candidates who aim to become health services researchers and leaders in improving public health through three primary tracks — health policy, global health and epidemiology.

“The MPH curriculum gives students both quantitative and qualitative skills as well as practicum experiences that can launch public health careers, even in the time of the pandemic,” said Marie Griffin, MD, MPH, director of the program.

Harriett Myers

Two days after graduating with her MPH degree in the global health track, Harriett Myers began working on the front lines as a communicable disease investigator, and over the past month she has been connecting COVID-19 patients in Nashville who primarily speak Spanish or Arabic with critical resources they need related to treatment and management of the virus.

The Hispanic and Kurdish communities in Southeast Nashville have been particularly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly a quarter of all of Nashville’s reported COVID-19 cases have been centered in the Hispanic community, according to data shared by the Metro Public Health Department.

Because of this, Vanderbilt MPH graduates like Myers have focused their response in these communities with targeted, comprehensive tactics, utilizing their skill set and academic training during the city’s most significant public health crisis to date.

Over the past month, Myers has been coordinating events like mobile testing on nights and weekends and at convenient sites such as Hispanic churches, helping connect these impacted communities with educational materials in primary languages and arranging hotel placement for patients who can’t self-isolate.

“I’ve always wanted to work with nonprofits with global populations here in the United States — immigrant refugees, non-English speaking communities — helping these marginalized groups have equitable health care and getting them care and health education in the language they primarily speak,” Myers said.

Caitlin Washburn

Caitlin Washburn, a 2021 MPH candidate in the global health track, is serving in a similar role in her practicum, working as a COVID response coordinator with Metro Public Health and Siloam Health, a health clinic serving uninsured individuals in the Nashville area.

Washburn’s role has been focused on the Community Health Worker COVID Response program established between the Metro Public Health Department and Siloam, which partners with community organizations supporting educational efforts in minority and other vulnerable populations in the Nashville area.

Washburn’s previous experience and interests were around global health and insect- and vector-borne diseases like Lyme disease and malaria. An earlier practicum she planned to complete at the Tennessee Department of Health and an overseas summer practicum in Namibia researching those diseases were tabled due to the pandemic, allowing Washburn to explore something new but still closely connected to global health.

“This is my first project in the community health realm, but so far I’ve really enjoyed it and I’ve seen firsthand how much of an impact it can make,” she said.

Washburn said her co-workers and mentor, Amy Richardson, MPH, chief community health officer at Siloam, have true passion for their work, and the lessons from her Vanderbilt global health faculty have influenced Washburn’s vision for her future.

“The idea the global health faculty introduced us to from the very start back in the fall that you can practice global health at a local level really stuck with me,” Washburn said. “It’s really exciting to work with global populations and help improve global health on a local level.”

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