Our Global Voices Posts

Public Health Veteran Leads Global CDC Team from Atlanta During COVID-19

Posted on by Nathalie Roberts, Global Rapid Response Team (GRRT) Lead in CDC’s Division of Global Health Protection.
Nathalie Roberts
Nathalie Roberts

I first learned about what would soon be called the COVID-19 pandemic after I returned from the 2020 New Year holidays and met with a colleague to resume work as usual. He mentioned that a “new coronavirus” had been identified in China. I thought to myself, “hopefully it won’t be as serious as SARS.”

I was managing CDC’s Global Rapid Response Team at the time and was asked to identify CDC employees who were available to travel and work at U.S. ports of entry, mainly airports. What started as a need for a “dozen or so” CDC responders turned into a request for 125 people to work on the response — about 35% of the entire team roster. As I was working to fulfill the request, I was asked to join a new task force established to handle international matters on COVID-19 at CDC.

I deployed to the response work from January to March of 2020. When I joined the International Task Force, our team was focused on reducing the spread of the virus by developing testing, surveillance strategies, and recommendations to prevent further infections.

Nathalie Roberts
Prior to COVID-19. Nathalie Roberts during an assessment of a camp for internally displaced persons in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, after the January 2010 earthquake. Photo by David Snyder/ CDC Foundation.

I’ve spent my entire career in public health, beginning at age 18 as an AIDS counselor in Florida. For the past six years, I’ve been working in global health security helping countries prepare for outbreaks and pandemics, so I felt like I had a lot to offer as the COVID-19 pandemic began to unfold.

It was so early in the pandemic, and we were still putting together response teams and identifying areas of focus for our work. After joining the International Task Force, I became the point of contact for China and Asian CDC country offices and supported their response efforts by facilitating, sharing, and developing scientific and policy documents. I also became the liaison to the State Department and USAID, working on joint guidance from the U.S. government and developing contingency plans for embassies.

I’ve been at CDC for 16 years now and in public health for 25 years. Of those, I’ve been in emergency response and preparedness for 10 years. I have never worked as hard or as long as I have this past year. In addition to working nearly every day, I was developing relationships with other CDC employees working on the response so that we could streamline information sharing and collaboration to respond quickly, succinctly, and accurately to questions from CDC’s leadership and country office directors.

I worked hard, along with my co-workers, to share the latest information with the public as quickly as possible. At the same time, I was quite concerned for my colleagues who were overseas and could be exposed to COVID-19, with increasingly fewer options to return to the US.

My team was actively working to support the team in China, while at the same time working closely with subject matter experts in Atlanta to better understand what we were facing. Any new scientific information was used to develop recommendations to slow down the spread of COVID-19. We were under constant pressure to ship personal protective equipment like masks and gloves, as well as COVID-19 tests to CDC offices in other countries. Then the outbreak of COVID-19 on the Diamond Princess cruise ship happened, and I had to quickly learn about maritime law and quarantine procedures and coordinate with multiple countries and partners as the number of people testing positive for the coronavirus grew.

Nathalie Roberts
Prior to COVID-19. Nathalie helps assess border health capacities with the Sierra Leone Ministry of Health and WHO. Sierra Leone-Guinea border, October 2016.

I’ve spent years working with the China, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Cambodia CDC offices. I have spent time working in other countries, and I know a lot of the staff working in the country offices. Understanding the cultural context and knowing country staff was really helpful in communicating what we did and did not know early in the pandemic, especially when we had such limited information about what was causing COVID-19.

The COVID-19 pandemic also obviously affected my personal life. For the first three months of the pandemic, we kept to our family pod of four. During the summer of 2020, we saw my parents and two other families in outside settings. Everyone took the necessary precautions when we met. We felt we needed that break and distraction for the benefit of our mental health. It was scary, but we felt that we had all stayed safe by not socializing, always wearing masks outside of the home, and not going out except for necessary errands like grocery shopping. When we could, my family and I would go hiking or take a walk, play board games, try new recipes, or watch a TV series.

Now that we’re more than a year into the pandemic, we have broadened our social pods as our family and friends get vaccinated. We recently traveled to Colorado and Florida; however, we did maintain the same protocols as at home. In Florida, it was so tempting to join one of the snorkel and sunset cruises, but we avoided it to remain safe from the coronavirus.

Nathalie Roberts
Nathalie Roberts with her family during Summer 2020. Photo by Nathalie Roberts

Throughout all of this, I happily realized that we have a strong family bond. Despite being locked up with my partner and two teen sons for a year, we still enjoy spending time together and still have a lot to talk about. I’m so proud of my sons, who’ve shown true resilience and thrived, despite the situation.

Working on CDC’s COVID-19 response has taught me that no matter what your experience and skillset is, each response to an outbreak is different. Sometimes previous experiences will be very useful in handling a new outbreak. However, it’s also important to be open to new ideas and ways of working and to be flexible given the challenges of the day.

Posted on by Nathalie Roberts, Global Rapid Response Team (GRRT) Lead in CDC’s Division of Global Health Protection.Leave a commentTags

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