Lab Matters Fall 2019 - Page 38

MEMBERSHIP Delaware Public Health Laboratory: At a Crossroads by Nancy Maddox, MPH, writer Measured by either land area (about 25,000 square miles) or permanent population (about 900,000 people), Delaware is one of the smallest US states. Yet these statistics, says Sergio Huerta, MD, director of the Delaware Public Health Laboratory (DE PHL), are misleading. He said, “Keep in mind that Delaware is at the crossroads of three major urban areas: Philly, Baltimore and Washington, DC. We have major airports surrounding us and airplanes coming in from all over the world.” Additionally, the state hosts Dover Air Force Base, seasonal migrant communities, nine million tourists per year and a segment of Interstate 95—the major north-south corridor running from the US-Canadian border to Miami. “All of these influencers,” said Huerta, “impact the work of our laboratory, especially diseases of emerging concern.” This past summer, for example, the laboratory aided the diagnosis of brucellosis within the migrant population. Add to this ever-changing mix of people a significant animal population, including a seasonal inpouring of migratory birds and one of the country’s leading poultry industries. “Birds can carry a number of viruses that we have to monitor for,” said Huerta. Fortunately, being a smaller state has its advantages: “I can get to state leaders easily, often just by picking up the phone,” Huerta said. The state Laboratory Preparedness Advisory Committee, begun in 2001, is something other states might dream about, as it includes key decision-makers from Delaware’s clinical, academic, agricultural and veterinary laboratories. The group meets biannually “to educate, inform and integrate program work.” Unsurprisingly, DE PHL has an uncommonly close relationship with Delaware’s sentinel laboratories: “We know the hospital lab techs; we went to the same schools together in many cases,” said Debra Rutledge, MT(ASCP), MBA, who oversees infectious disease testing. In 2012, the laboratory garnered the 36 LAB MATTERS Fall 2019 Microbiologists Rebecca Savage (l) and Emma Fare-Peterman (r) suit up to begin collection. Photo: DE PHL Laboratory Response Network National Meeting Planning Committee award for its outstanding sentinel clinical laboratory training program. Facility DE PHL is situated in the city of Smyrna (population 11,600), about 11 miles north of the state capital, Dover. The 39,000-square-foot, red-brick laboratory building is surrounded by three acres of land and abuts a hospital for the chronically ill. Built in 1990, the building gained an additional BSL-3 suite (its largest) in 2005, along with a modest expansion of space. Director and Staff Huerta was born in Santiago, Chile, where his father served as a visiting physician- epidemiologist for the World Health Organization. He was a small child when the family relocated to the Washington, DC, suburbs in the 1950s. Huerta attended the George Washington University and earned an MD degree before finishing his academic career with specialty work in pathology at New Jersey’s St. Barnabas Medical Center. “By that time, I was married, and we had our firstborn,” said Huerta. “My wife wanted to move to countryside and to be closer to family.” Since his in-laws had passed away, that meant a move to Delaware, where Huerta’s parents had retired. Huerta began his tenure with the Delaware government as an unpaid consultant tasked with developing a business plan for the state’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) laboratory. Shortly thereafter, in 1992, the DNREC laboratory director retired, and Huerta was offered the job. He took it. Almost two decades later, in 2011, the public health laboratory director retired and Huerta was asked to “cover” the laboratory until a new director was in place. The new director, “being a researcher at heart,” said Huerta, left after eight months for a position at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Again, Huerta stepped into the breach: “They asked me to cover and, from that time on, I guess it stuck. Here I remain.” Since 2012, Huerta has had a dual role as director of the DNREC laboratory and the Division of Public Health laboratory. Huerta is supported by 52 people, and, he said, “They’re all top-notch professionals.” Among them are Deputy Director Christina Pleasanton, MS, CO; Infectious PublicHealthLabs @APHL APHL.org