Veterinary college alumni uniquely prepared for a pandemic
From public health veterinarians and pathologists to veterinary epidemiologists and disease surveillance experts, the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine’s One Health-trained alumni have their boots on the ground in response to the COVID-19 crisis.
Cara Cherry (DVM ’10)
“I feel a responsibility to assist in situations like this,” said Cara Cherry, a veterinary epidemiologist who volunteered for a month on the One Health team at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Emergency Operations Center.
At the CDC, Cherry studies rickettsial diseases and works with state health departments to guide their policies and approaches to testing — but she’s no stranger to emerging diseases and to adapting to rapidly changing information. During her final year of the Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) Program at the veterinary college, Cherry completed an external rotation with the CDC’s Epidemiology Elective Program, working with fellow college alumna Jennifer McQuiston (B.S. ’93, DVM ’97, M.S. ’98).
After going on to complete a Master of Public Health (MPH) at the University of Minnesota, where she was a resident in preventive medicine, Cherry entered a two-year outbreak investigation training program at the National Park Service, visiting 13 parks across the country. Then, in 2014 and 2015, she twice traveled to Liberia to work on contact tracing during the Ebola outbreak.
Growing up, Cherry always knew she wanted to be a veterinarian, though she was not aware of the career possibilities in public health. “When I was applying to vet schools,” she said, “I read about Virginia-Maryland’s public/corporate track, which was my introduction to the idea of veterinary public health, that animal health could affect human health, that I could still do what I always wanted to do, but could take it in a new direction.”
Cherry believes that her One Health-focused veterinary training has been invaluable to her work at the CDC. “The One Health concept is something veterinary medicine has really embraced, and I think more and more people outside of our profession are getting it,” she said. “This outbreak really puts a spotlight on that.”
Jody Kull (DVM ’04)
Jody Kull is dairy farming’s godsend — especially in the wake of the challenges wrought by the pandemic.
One of four dairy professionals who, in March, joined the board of directors of the Center for Dairy Excellence and the Dairy Excellence Foundation, Kull filled a new position designated for a veterinarian with experience consulting dairy clients. She operates Valley Mobile Veterinary Services, which focuses on food animal medicine in a seven-county area across Pennsylvania.
Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, Kull has assembled resources to educate her clients about how the pandemic can affect the supply system and their businesses at large. She knows firsthand that those in the agriculture industry are weathering financially difficult times.
“While some producers are being asked by processors to downsize, sell cows, or dump milk, I am helping to facilitate whatever my producers need to maintain their best milk supply possible,” Kull said. She has connected clients with information that will help them develop contingency plans for sick workers, establish safety policies for visitors to their farms, and apply for Paycheck Protection Program loans through the Small Business Administration.
Along with supporting the region’s producers, Kull has made videos to educate 4-H groups and high school agriculture classes and has published a robust suite of information online for easy access.
These efforts were particularly valuable when stay-at-home orders were first implemented and panic-buying depleted grocery stores’ stock. Kull educated the public about food systems and, by way of her work with the American Dairy Association NorthEast, helped move provisions to those stores with limited dairy supplies.
“Teaching my producers to make a safe and healthy product that is marketable and profitable and educating my community about that process,” Kull said, “is what my veterinary education trained me to do every day of the week.”
In early February, Jennifer McQuiston received an urgent call: A plane carrying 91 American citizens evacuated from Wuhan, China, would soon touch down at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. The CDC needed her in the field.
Deputy director for the National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases’ Division of High-Consequence Pathogens and Pathology (DHCPP) since 2016 — and long accustomed to pivoting in response to disease outbreaks — McQuiston set off for Texas to coordinate a team that would set up quarantine and testing facilities for the repatriated Americans.
Once on base, the team worked “hand in hand with partners from all over the U.S. government” to ensure that the passengers were safely received, screened, quarantined, and cared for, said McQuiston, a captain in the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps.
Over the ensuing two weeks, the CDC team — epidemiologists, quarantine officers from the Division of Global Migration and Quarantine, a contracts officer, a resiliency officer, an infection control specialist, and a public affairs officer — was joined by additional staff to oversee the health and day-to-day care of those quarantined. Among the new arrivals was a familiar face, a fellow veterinary college alumna who is a veterinary epidemiologist with the DHCPP’s Viral Special Pathogens Branch.
McQuiston first worked with Caitlin Cossaboom (B.S. ’10, MPH ’14, Ph.D. ’15, DVM ’17), a lieutenant in the U.S. Public Health Service, when Cossaboom trained in the CDC’s Epidemic Intelligence Service, a two-year postdoctoral program for aspiring epidemiologists.
“I’ve been [at the CDC] for 22 years, and whenever I see Virginia-Maryland students, I get excited. Interest in public health has really grown since the DVM program expanded and collaborated with the Public Health Program,” McQuiston said.
To be sure, the veterinary college’s One Health approach to research, education, and service that aims to protect the health and well-being of animals, people, and the environment ably prepares its graduates to navigate pandemics like COVID-19.
“I always say that veterinarians are uniquely positioned to think about epidemiology in a different way compared to the training that medical doctors receive. Herd health, public health, all that foundational basis I got from the veterinary college and from my work with [professor of production management medicine/epidemiology] Kevin Pelzer, who was my public health instructor,” McQuiston said. “I’ve worked more on human medicine than animal medicine throughout my life, but the principles I was taught in veterinary school are absolutely critical to this work.”
Note: Only one of the evacuated Americans at Lackland tested positive for COVID-19.
Steve Rekant (DVM ’13, MPH ’13)
As an officer in the CDC’s Epidemic Intelligence Service training program, Steve Rekant landed in Oregon, one of the first states to be hit hard with COVID-19. Brought in during early discussions of the pandemic in January, Rekant has since been assigned to the Oregon Health Authority, where he works on a broad expanse of tasks.
“Most of my time is spent with the health intelligence team, which manages data, performs analyses, and prepares reports,” he explained. He also has worked as a senior health advisor, collaborating with local public health authorities.
To help break the disease’s cycle of transmission, Rekant both participated in and trained others in contact tracing and case interviewing. In addition, he worked on guidelines for the COVID-19 response, quickly revising and updating as new information about the virus became available and circumstances changed.
“The future of outbreak investigations is that they change and evolve as the outbreak changes,” Rekant said. “That’s both something I learned in vet school and something I’ve seen along the way.”
Before his time at the veterinary college, Rekant had lost interest in the idea of a traditional, small animal veterinary career. But after talking to Bettye Walters, then-director of the college’s Center for Public and Corporate Veterinary Medicine, about the public/corporate track and dual-degree DVM/MPH options, he gained a new focus: public health.
In his day-to-day work on the COVID-19 response, Rekant uses more than just the skills he picked up in epidemiology and herd health courses in the DVM/MPH program. “One of the skills I learned in vet school that has served me quite well during this pandemic response is critical thinking. And I learned how to talk to folks and be sympathetic and empathetic. That was something I was able to build and hone during school.”
Caitlin Rivers (MPH ’13, Ph.D. ’15)
In May, Caitlin Rivers testified before the U.S. House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, advising the federal government to develop a national plan to eliminate test shortages and anticipate bottlenecks in the supply of reagents and materials in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
An epidemiologist, Rivers is an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, a think tank whose mission is to “protect people’s health from epidemics and disasters and ensure that communities are resilient to major challenges.”
While earning an MPH in the infectious disease concentration at the veterinary college and a Ph.D. in genetics, bioinformatics, and computational biology at Virginia Tech, Rivers was awarded an Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity Fellowship through the Center for Health Security, as well as a Department of Defense Science, Mathematics, and Research for Transformation Scholarship, guaranteeing her a position in the U.S. Army Public Health Command. Rivers then worked in the epidemiology and disease surveillance directorate at the Army Public Health Center before beginning her position at Johns Hopkins.
During the height of the pandemic, Rivers has written several articles for The Washington Post and spoken with scores of journalists. On Twitter, she offers concise, sharp updates on COVID-19 research and policies to more than 146,000 followers who look to her for information.
In her testimony before Congress, Rivers emphasized the need for improved diagnostic testing and contact tracing, as well as more support for health care system capacity. Looking to the future, she urged lawmakers to establish a national center to predict and analyze pandemic trends and to credibly inform the decision-making of federal and state officials.
“There is some misconception that because COVID-19 is unprecedented, it is not worth designing new systems around,” Rivers told Congress. “But, in fact, outbreaks that threaten our national interests are unsettlingly common.”
Betsy Schroeder (DVM ’16, MPH ’16, Ph.D. ’20)
For Betsy Schroeder, Pennsylvania’s public health veterinarian, the COVID-19 crisis has meant nonstop work on the front lines.
“It's something new every single day, it's both stimulating and exhausting at the same time, and this is the most important work I'll probably ever do in my career,” said Schroeder, who has acted as the co-operations section chief for the Pennsylvania Department of Health’s Incident Command System since January.
“This week alone,” Schroeder said, “I've been on site visits with a CDC strike team to food-processing facilities that are experiencing outbreaks in their workforce, presented on veterinary practice guidelines to the Pennsylvania Veterinary Medical Association, worked on a task force to provide more testing across Pennsylvania, notified hospitals of incoming shipments of Remdesivir, helped coordinate plans for universal testing in long-term care facilities, pushed out new guidance from CDC — which was modified to be specific to Pennsylvania — and assessed requests to test cats, dogs, ferrets, and horses for SARS-CoV-2.”
Schroeder believes that her ability to adapt to new and varied situations was sharpened during her time at the veterinary college. A graduate of the public/corporate track, she was introduced to a diverse set of hands-on experiences — “from doing necropsies on an aardvark, to assessing canine rabies vaccination programs in Ethiopia, to learning how to respond to a mass bat exposure in Chile” — each of which formed the foundation for her work first as an epidemic intelligence officer and then as a state public health veterinarian.
And she’s not the only veterinary college alumnus guiding Pennsylvania during the pandemic. “The state veterinarian Kevin Brightbill (DVM ’03) has joked that of course there would be two Hokies leading veterinary public health in Pennsylvania,” said Schroeder.
Lindsey McCrickard Shields (DVM ’11)
The surveillance lead for the Infectious Disease Detection and Surveillance (IDDS) project — funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development — Lindsey Shields collaborates with teams worldwide to improve surveillance systems that track infectious diseases.
“In the day to day, I work with our country teams, advising on best practices for outbreak responses enacted globally, strengthening surveillance systems using new electronic tools, and thinking through how to best target our project funding to maximize our support of the national government’s response,” said Shields, a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Preventive Medicine.
Although many of the teams that Shields works with have shifted to surveilling the current pandemic, several remain focused on infectious diseases that continue to threaten humans and animals around the world.
In addition to her position with the IDDS project, Shields shares her expertise with the District of Columbia Department of Health, from contract tracing in priority populations to writing protocols and training materials.
During her time as a student, Shields believes that classes in public health, virology, bacteriology, and epidemiology were significant in her professional development, while her program track prepared her to work in a variety of contexts.
“I was lucky enough to be [in the public/corporate track] during vet school,” Shields said, “which meant I had the opportunity in my fourth year to really try out a lot of different paths within veterinary medicine, including working for the CDC in Anchorage, Alaska, and for the Food and Agriculture Organization [a specialized agency of the United Nations] in Rome. I focused on outbreak response during those clerkships, getting me ready to pursue a path in global public health and outbreak response across both human and animal health.”
Jim Trybus (DVM ’04)
Upon first entering veterinary school, Jim Trybus, like countless other veterinary students, thought he wanted to practice small animal medicine. But after the college’s broad curriculum had exposed him to other veterinary disciplines, the intricacies of pathology and diagnostics altered his course.
“I was able to work in the teaching hospital’s clinical pathology laboratory as a veterinary student, which really solidified my fascination with diagnostics and pathology,” Trybus said.
Today, Trybus, a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Pathologists, serves as director of laboratories for North Carolina’s Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory System, which diagnoses, conducts surveillance, and assists in responding to and preventing animal disease.
Under Trybus’ sure hand, the system’s central, full-service laboratory in Raleigh is working with the North Carolina Department of Health to lend molecular diagnostic equipment that will bolster the department’s COVID-testing capabilities. Meanwhile, the lab continues to test for other diseases, such as African swine fever, classical swine fever, and avian influenza, in order to monitor disease outbreak in the animal population.
“Although we are not directly involved in COVID testing in humans — as some veterinary diagnostic labs are — or in animals, we remain an essential part of maintaining the food supply through regulatory, diagnostic, and outbreak disease testing of North Carolina’s animal industry,” Trybus said.
During this period of heightened awareness, Trybus is quick to acknowledge the crucial work conducted day in and day out by the support staff and technicians in the state’s four laboratories. “This dedicated, highly trained, behind-the-scenes workforce can, unfortunately, sometimes be overlooked,” he said.
— Written by Sarah Boudreau, a student in the M.F.A. program in creative writing