Lab Matters Spring 2021 | Page 27


Rebuilding the Public Health Workforce in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands

By Tyler Wolford , MS , manager , Emergency Preparedness and Response
A capable and robust public health workforce is of critical importance to assure conditions in which people can be healthy . This workforce contributes to healthy outcomes through changing individual behaviors and implementing policies which protects the public health or the population at large . In the United States , there is an urgent need to bolster funding for the public health workforce in all positions . Addressing this gap is even more urgent when disasters strike , as public health systems may not be able to quickly rebound — impacting the safety , security and health of the public .
Following hurricanes Harvey , Irma and Maria in 2017 , APHL received a $ 16.7 million cooperative agreement by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ( CDC ) Center for State , Tribal , Local and Territorial Support ( CSTLTS ) to provide technical assistance for the public health response and recovery efforts within three jurisdictions — Houston , TX , Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands . A priority activity under the cooperative agreement was to assist Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands in rebuilding their public health workforce . Each jurisdiction had unique challenges , requiring distinctive solutions and collaboration among APHL , CDC , departments of health and partner organizations .
Puerto Rico : Rebuilding the Workforce
In Puerto Rico , APHL collaborated across multiple areas to hire key personnel . The Puerto Rico Department of Health managed initial recruitment and interviewing of prospective employees . From there , APHL managed hiring , onboarding and orientation of new hires . Within three months of receiving the CDC notice of award , APHL onboarded 35 staff in the jurisdiction . APHL held one in-person orientation for this large group of employees prior to COVID-19 travel restrictions , and provided virtual orientations to ensure staff had the appropriate training and resources during the pandemic . By January 2021 , 69 staff had been hired in a variety of positions , including :
• Laboratory personnel :
• Supervisors
• Medical technologists
• Laboratory assistants
• Nurses
• Chemists
• Epidemiologists
• Program coordinators
• Warehouse managers
• Communication and education specialists
• Engineers
• Information technology ( IT ) and bioinformatics specialists
• Data entry technicians .
The successful recruitment and hiring within Puerto Rico can be attributed to the collaboration among the jurisdiction , CDC and APHL , as well as the availability of qualified public health personnel on-island . The Medical Technology Program was a key source for qualified laboratory personnel .
US Virgin Islands : Expanding the Workforce
In the US Virgin Islands , APHL employed a different approach to expanding the workforce . Via ExecuSource , Inc ., a professional employment organization , APHL coordinated hiring of :
• Date entry technicians
• Laboratory supervisors
• Laboratory technicians
• Administrative assistants .
APHL managed recruitment of open positions , reviewing potential candidates and conducting phone screens . US Virgin Islands Department of Health staff conducted in-person interviews of qualified candidates and recommended new hires as needed . To date , 19 staff have been hired to assist in rebuilding and expanding public health services . The
As demonstrated by the 2017 hurricanes , public health laboratories and systems operating in recovery and response mode must overcome challenges that not only limit their capability to restore essential public health services , but also their ability to prepare for and respond to the next disaster . While CDC crisis response funding and support from partner organizations like APHL assisted with onboarding personnel , long-term federal investments are needed to ensure :
1 . A pipeline of qualified public health personnel – this includes investments in academic programs as well as medical technology and other laboratory programs , which develop the next generation of scientists .
2 . Availability of training programs in multiple modalities and languages .
3 . Availability of technical skills building courses , such as informatics and bioinformatics .
4 . Creation and maintenance of fellowship programs .
5 . Ongoing investments in professional development , continuing education and leadership development .
successful recruitment and hiring within US Virgin Islands can be attributed to the collaboration among the jurisdiction , CDC and APHL , as well as the willingness to recruit off-island .
Sustaining a skilled workforce is critical to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of a rapid response to all public health emergencies . The safety and well-being of a population cannot wait for emergency response funding . These federal investments in a robust public health workforce must be made before a disaster strikes . n
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