USF gets $8M in federal awards to train state's public health workforce

The University of South Florida College of Public Health recently received two federal grants totaling $8-million to help train Florida’s public health workforce — making the college a key player in preparing the state to mount effective public health responses. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention awarded the college $4.75- million over five years to establish a center that will enhance the emergency and disaster preparedness of state and local public health workers.   USF was one of 14 accredited schools of public health nationwide – and the only one in Florida — to be funded for a Preparedness and Emergency Response Learning Center.  Johns Hopkins, Harvard and the University of North Carolina are among the other schools that will be part of the nationwide network.

The Health and Human Resources Administration awarded the college a five-year, $3.25-million grant to support a Public Health Training Center that will assess the learning needs and further develop the knowledge and skills of the state’s current and future public health professionals.  USF was one of 27 accredited schools of public health and other public and non-profit institutions across the country – the only one in Florida – to receive such an award.

“Investing in a well-trained public health workforce is vital to the health and welfare of our communities and state,” said Donna Petersen, ScD, dean of the USF College of Public Health. “These new grants will help insure Florida’s public health system is ready and able to effectively respond to public health threats — whether it’s disasters like hurricanes, chronic conditions such as obesity, or emerging infectious diseases.”


Dr. W. Michael Reid, right, was the lead writer for both federal training grants. Dr. Donna Petersen, dean of the USF College of Public Health, said a well-trained public health workforce is vital to the state’s health and safety.

The funding of the two new federally-funded public health training centers at USF comes at a critical time for Florida, said William Michael Reid, PhD, MBA, associate professor emeritus of environmental and occupational health at the USF College of Public Health, who was the lead writer for both workforce development grants.

Cuts in Florida Department of Health staff and restricted travel budgets have increased the need for accessible, cost-effective training and support.  The need is even more pronounced when factoring in the aging state workforce; agencies like FDOH stand to lose as much as 55 percent of their experienced personnel in the next few years, with few trained employees ready to replace them.

“Employees of the Florida Department of Health have faced sharply reduced opportunities for training over the past few years,” Reid said. “The record of the USF College of Public Health’s Center for Public Health Preparedness in providing training was one reason that the Surgeon General of Florida enthusiastically supported both these grant applications.”

Preparedness and Emergency Response Learning Center (PERLC)

The PERLC features collaboration among the USF College of Public Health’s Center for Leadership in Public Health Practice, the Sarasota County Health Department, Sarasota County Emergency Services and the Sarasota County Community Organizations Active in Disaster (COAD).  The partnership will develop a Sarasota-based training institute that allows community representatives from other counties to learn about and replicate Sarasota’s innovative community-based system for disaster preparedness, response and recovery.  The Sarasota system — involving faith-based organizations, hospitals, the school district, businesses and other community partners – emphasizes inter-agency collaboration and promotes sharing of resources.

“Sarasota has established a highly successful, nationally-recognized model that other regions of the state could replicate to become more coordinated in how they plan for and respond to disasters,” said Danielle Landis, PhD, MPH, deputy director of USF’s Center for Leadership in Public Health Practice.

“This is a great opportunity for Sarasota to work with the USF College of Public Health to train others on what we’ve been doing to build community capacity before a disaster like another hurricane or a flu epidemic hits,” said Bill Little, MBA, MPH, director of the Sarasota County Health Department and administrator of Sarasota County Health and Human Services.

Teams of trainees will be recruited from counties across the state in early spring 2011, with the institute’s training program expected to begin in summer 2011.

This latest CDC-funded project will build upon USF College of Public Health’s longstanding relationship with Sarasota County through the college’s Florida Prevention Research Center.  Collaborating with the Sarasota County Health Department and other community stakeholders, the college has conducted several community-based social marketing projects in Sarasota County, including one aimed at preventing tobacco and alcohol use in middle school students and another to promote youth fitness.

The PERLC will also work with the Florida Department of Health, including its Office of Public Health Preparedness, to develop and offer online and onsite courses to the department’s employees and other public health emergency and disaster preparedness workers across the state.  These would include existing courses in mental health support for first responders and front-line health professionals vulnerable to disaster-related stress, in crisis communications and leadership, and in field epidemiology for the state’s strike teams that help communities investigate causes of disease outbreaks and contain their spread. Additional training, based on Florida Department of Health needs, will begin in late spring 2011.

Disaster/emergency preparedness and response training will be a key focus of the new CDC-funded center.

Public Health Training Center (PHTC)

During the PHTC’s first year, USF will work with the Florida Department of Health to better assess the needs of the public health workforce and identify gaps in training among state and local public health workers, Landis said. Areas that require strengthening are likely to include environmental health, communication, disaster-related behavioral health, and crisis leadership, she said. A key partner in the PHTC trainings will be the Department of Health’s Office of Workforce Development.

The PHTC workforce needs assessment will be used to plan and develop training that blends classroom instruction with technologies such as distance learning, podcasting, webinars and online chat rooms for real-time discussions.  USF was the first college of public health in the nation to offer a fully distance-based master of public health degree.

One of the most exciting components of the PHTC will be a web-based mentoring program that matches both junior public health employees and USF public health students with those in leadership positions at the Florida Department of Health to promote sharing of knowledge, skills and experiences, Landis said.

The new grant funding will allow the college to offer stipends to students who qualify for DOH-mentored field experiences, Landis said.  So, for instance, a public health student with a special interest in disaster planning might be matched with a senior director of disaster and emergency management and through that relationship have the chance to travel to Tallahassee or another area of the state to observe an Emergency Operations Command Center in action.

“The placements with mentors will greatly increase our students’ opportunities to gain practical experience in the field,” Landis said, “and that kind of ‘boots-on-the-ground’ training provides a tremendous edge in the job market.”

Both the PERLC and PHTC will be based in the College of Public Health’s Office of Public Health Practice.

Story by Anne DeLotto Baier, USF Health Communications