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Entering the public health profession during a pandemic

Photo of Malik Outram

October 8, 2020

Malik Outram graduated from our Master of Public Health program (infectious disease concentration) in spring 2020. As a recent graduate, Malik was drawn to finding a job that allows him to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and use his skill sets in epidemiology and infectious disease to keep communities safe. Below, Malik provides a look into his job as the COVID-19 Southwest Regional Containment Advisor.

My position title is Southwest Regional Containment Advisor. In this role, I spend a good deal of time in the near Southwest area of Virginia traveling to train new contractors for case investigations in the health districts as well as doing case investigations myself. I am responsible for coordinating case investigation and/or contact tracing activities within the region. I will also be serving as a technical advisor for a team of case investigators and contact tracers, providing training, oversight, and mentorship, with the idea being that we will be a rapidly deployable surge team to handle outbreaks whenever they appear. 

The onset of the pandemic really led me to this role. I found out about the position through the staffing agency the Virginia Department of Health was using to mass hire public health professionals. Due to the nature of the pandemic, I knew my skill set in epidemiology and infectious diseases would be useful to combat the pandemic in Virginia effectively.  My passion lies in public health, and I felt that I just needed to jump in and do what I could to keep our communities safe. 

Some of the biggest problems we are running into are distrust of the government and a lack of people who wish to work in the health districts. Southwest Virginia has lagged behind in terms of hiring staff for districts compared to other regions in Virginia. Virginia has great electronic reporting and outbreak systems already in place that has made things much easier compared to other states. Due to the sheer burden COVID-19 has placed on health departments, the number of jobs and tasks that need to be accomplished are almost exponential. We are constantly learning new things such as better motivational interviewing skills, keeping up-to-date with the evolving information on SARS-CoV-2, and just how Virginia is mobilizing to combat the spread across the state. 

One of the best things I have learned is to be flexible as the situation is always changing! One of the biggest obstacles I’ve encountered is managing the process of reaching out to everyone that becomes ill. On a slow day it can be easy to do, but when you have 40 or 50 people to reach out to each day, it can quickly become overwhelming. 

I had a standout moment happen just this week. I received an email with a request for assistance in a district that was experiencing a surge in cases. At this point in time, Southwest Virginia does not have a surge team to handle this; it's just me. I needed to figure out a way to help the district with 50 unassigned cases, with more expected later that day. I was able to reach out to my fellow Regional Containment Advisors throughout the state to ask for help. Out of sheer coincidence, the Eastern region and more specifically, Norfolk, were able to lend us a hand in contacting and investigating all the surge cases we were not able to get to directly. 

The most meaningful part of my job is that I know I am making a difference. It’s very rewarding when I speak to someone and hear how grateful they are for what we are doing. I went into this job expecting the unexpected, and I wasn’t disappointed by any means. One day I’m doing epidemiology work and the next I am fixing IT problems for contracted staff. It's something new every day, and I really enjoy it.  The most surprising thing for me has been the amazing people I have met working in the various health departments. Even though they are together under the name Virginia Department of Health, every district is unique and different.