Notes from the Field: Deployed to CDC’s COVID-19 Response

In January 2020, CDC launched an agency-wide emergency response to the COVID-19 pandemic. CDC’s response mission is to save lives and protect frontline healthcare workers, communities, and the public from the health threats associated with COVID-19. Since then, CDC’s emergency response has deployed 1,611of public health experts to communities throughout the U.S. and across the globe to provide public health leadership, build local response capacity, and support surveillance and outreach efforts. To staff this ongoing response, CDC employees are called to serve for a minimum of 30 days, with some serving for many months at a time. In many cases this means employees physically leaving their day jobs and traveling to a different part of the country to serve on the response. Although it can be difficult to leave your job and family for months at a time, this is the role of a public servant in the face of one of the most severe public health crisis of our lifetime.

My Marching Orders

In early 2021, I was called to Utah to serve on the response for 30 days. My mission was clear—to develop a strategy to distribute COVID-19 vaccines to people in congregate living sites who lack access to transportation. People at these sites—including retirement communities and independent living facilities—are at higher risk for severe illness or death from COVID-19. Residents often have underlying health conditions and are older. Getting and spreading COVID-19 in congregate living sites is more likely because of group social activities, and shared communal spaces and activities). Due to the amazing work done by local health departments across Utah, they identified a small population of approximately 125,000 people in these congregate living sites. The state and local health departments all recognized how critical it is to reach this population to reduce the number of emergency department visits, stop the spread of the virus, and prevent deaths amongst this community. The specific challenge my team faced when arriving in Utah was how to reach them.

Where Do I Even Start?

Whenever I’m faced with a new or unfamiliar task, I lean on what I know best, project management. Developing a plan is the best way for me to assess the complexities of the project, get organized and comfortable in a new setting, and identify the internal and external partners needed to accomplish the project. I needed to develop a comprehensive vaccine distribution strategy. To do this, I relied on my favorite project management tools and skills, including:

  • Establishing a work breakdown structure – A work breakdown structure serves as a roadmap when dealing with complex projects and tasks. Establishing project goals, phases, and key deliverables within the project gives a visual breakdown and organization to a highly complex project.
  • Developing a Gantt chart and timeline – A Gantt chart enables you to visualize your time and resources within your project and serves as a progression timeline for each individual project task. Specific Gantt chart tools allow you to designate team members, task duration, and other dependencies within a given task.
  • Managing resources – In project management, resources are necessary for carrying out any task. Even the best laid project plan will be unsuccessful if the resources needed to execute the plan are not properly managed, whether that’s funding, inventory, or staff members. Within my project, closely managing financial resources and vaccine inventory was critical to our strategy.

Once I developed a strong project plan, I was able to identify the critical elements of this vaccination distribution strategy—the biggest one being the use of public-private partnerships. Local partners including the Housing Authority of Salt Lake City and Meals on Wheels were central to identifying methods to reach these specific populations because of their deep knowledge of the community. Leveraging these relationships made outreach and service less challenging. Additionally, local health departments supplied mobile vaccination units to bring vaccines directly to disproportionately affected communities. These two partnerships were critical to effectively identifying and distributing vaccines to those who needed it but couldn’t walk to or drive to a vaccination center.

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Turning Strategy into Reality

With partnerships established and a strong project plan in place, it was essential to get buy-in and approval on the implementation approach from all key partners, including the state and local health departments and the congregate living sites. Although all parties agreed on the importance of reaching this population, they had different concerns about the implementation of this strategy—requesting small quantities of doses, wasting vaccination doses, and acquiring mobile units. To approve the strategy, we went through weeks of negotiation, discussing all aspects of implementation. We listened closely to our partners’ concerns and priorities, which was critical for us to take our strategy across the finish line.

Once negotiations were finalized, we were able to implement our strategy. My 30 days were up, but I left the team with a strong and comprehensive strategy to distribute vaccines to people in congregate living sites who lack access to transportation. I’ve checked in with the team regularly and as of today, 65% of doses have been successfully distributed.

What I’ve Learned from This Experience

Reflecting on my time in Utah, three key takeaways resonated with me during my response:

  • Project management A good project plan, even if it has to be adapted, identifies the critical elements and dependencies that can make or break a project. A good plan prepares you for the challenges and roadblocks every project faces, and enables your team to have a collective vision for the project and stay focused on the end goals.
  • Strong partnerships and stakeholder buy-in can make or break a project. Working with local partners is critical to vaccination efforts nationwide. Local partners know how to reach disproportionately impacted populations in their communities and have valuable local knowledge and expertise. Coming in from a federal perspective, it was important that our work was led by local partners to develop an effective strategy.
  • To solve community-based problems, you need community engagement. A proactive effort to identify the community’s priorities and concerns will pay dividends later down the road when you need their approval and support. By developing a community engagement plan early, you can tailor your project plan, strategy, and communications to bring everyone to the table and get them to agree to a path forward.

F.E. Harrison

F.E. Harrison serves as the Deputy Director for the Division of Environmental Health Science and Practice (DEHSP) at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). She Manages an annual budget of over $100 million has more than 15 years of experience directing multi-disciplinary project teams, implementing domestic and international evidence-based interventions, and developing communication campaigns and partnership strategy for federal and state agencies, local ministries of health (MOH), and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). In her past position, F.E. Harrison served as a Deputy Branch Chief at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). She managed an annual budget of $16 million for Vaccines Preventable Diseases. She managed domestic and international programs with multilateral organizations, such as WHO, GAVI, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. From 2016 to 2019, F.E. served as a project officer for the Haiti office supporting PEPFAR and Global Health Security program activities. During this time, she also served as the Acting COAG Team Lead, implementing a program budget of $52 million annually. F.E. led various health informatics projects including Haiti’s national electronic medical records (EMR) called iSantè, bio-metric coding, and the patient linkage and retention tablet system. F.E.’s international experience began in 2012 when she spent three months in Mozambique as part of the International Experience and Technical Assistance (IETA) Program. In 2015, she was deployed to Liberia to work on the management and operations team assisting in the Ebola relief. During her deployment, she worked closely with the country director on managing the office’s cooperative agreements and contracts, the office’s budget, and post held funds. F.E. began her federal career in 2005 as a part of the Emerging Leaders Program (ELP). The ELP program was a competitive two-year fellowship within Health and Human Services. She joined CDC in 2006 as a Health Communication Specialist. Her experience in communications includes conducting formative research, monitoring and evaluating communication channels, writing speeches, performing user-centered analysis, leading message development, planning content strategies and web digital strategy, and managing social media and communication campaigns. F.E.'s formal education includes a Master of Business Administration (MBA) from the University of Central Florida and a Bachelor of Science in Public Relations from Florida A&M University. She is also certified as a Project Management Professional (PMP).