Only a year after graduating from Drexel’s Dornsife School of Public Health with a master’s degree in public health, Danielle Fernandez found herself at ground zero in the 2016 Zika virus outbreak.
Fernandez is an epidemiologist with the Applied Epidemiology and Research team at the Florida Department of Health in Miami-Dade County. She and her colleagues — using data from emergency rooms, absenteeism in schools and other sources — must track how diseases move through populations, anticipate where they will go next, and offer residents advice on how to avoid infection.
Fernandez says that Drexel taught her the skills she used so effectively not only in combatting the Zika epidemic but also in her daily work, which entails designing research models to evaluate and respond to risk.
"Drexel gave me a very, very strong foundation in data sciences, particularly with specific computer programs that I still use now and are in pretty good demand in my work," she says. "Knowing how to pre-plan responses and what to do with data — and how to present it in a way that the community understands — was definitely something Drexel instilled in me."
Also, as part of her graduate studies, she had the opportunity to work across disciplines with renowned Drexel engineer Charles Haas, PhD, the L.D. Betz Professor of Environmental Engineering, on an important study that shed new light on the incubation period for Ebola in Africa. They reexamined how reporting biases and measurement error may affect the present-day validity of previous estimates of incubation time.
Responding to crisis today with tools for the future
So, in many ways Fernandez was uniquely prepared when news emerged that the Zika virus, which her team had been tracking, hit the mainland.
“I want to leave tools in place that help future generations respond to the dangers of viruses like Zika.”
"We had a little bit of a heads up that it was coming," she says. "But we also were the first place in America to have local transmission. And there's a world of difference between tourists coming into your port or airport with this virus they contracted elsewhere and people just living their everyday lives and getting infected."
Sleuthing how the virus was transmitted required painstaking work, made more complex by the fact that Zika was the first mosquito-borne virus in known history that could be sexually transmitted.
For the next four months, she led a door-to-door field survey in the residential neighborhoods where people with confirmed cases lived, worked or reported significant exposures. The epidemiologists would knock on doors and offer free Zika urine testing, regardless of symptoms or exposure.
The effectiveness of this effort earned her a place on the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO) Zika Advisory Council.
Looking ahead, Fernandez says she wants to help future generations respond to the challenges of the ever-changing world of viruses.
"We need to have infrastructure and tools in place so that if something happens in the future that looks like something we've seen in the past, we already know how to tackle it before it becomes too big," she says. "When I think about how I want to leave my mark on public health, I don't want it to be just that I worked on Zika that one time. I want to leave tools in place that help future generations respond to the dangers of viruses like Zika."