Jorge Garcia: Student puts public health education into practice during COVID-19 pandemic

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Master of Public Health provides knowledge and skills for a practical role in infectious disease surveillance.

Master of Public Health (MPH) student Jorge Garcia gained valuable hands-on experience in infectious disease surveillance while working in the Fairfax County Department of Health during the pandemic.

Prior to joining Mason’s Master of Public Health (MPH) program, Jorge Garcia explored his options for graduate programs and quickly became interested in the study of public health. “I first read The hot zone by Richard Preston, then I knew I wanted to work with infectious disease epidemiology, ”Garcia said. “I knew people who studied at Mason and who enjoyed their experience, so an MPH in Epidemiology was the next logical step, and I loved the process of finding my goal.”

Due to the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic soon after joining the program, Garcia took on a role that allowed him to gain experience in preventing the spread of infectious diseases while progressing in his lessons with Mason.

In June 2020, Garcia joined the Fairfax County Health Department as a Community Health Worker, where he connected people in quarantine and isolation with necessary materials and resources, such as groceries, hygiene products, medication, rental assistance, home COVID-19 testing, cleaning products and face masks.

“I would drive to their house and drop off the requested material, as our priority was to meet people where they are and make sure they don’t leave their homes during quarantine to get essential items,” Garcia said.

Educate the community about vaccines

As vaccines became more readily available, Garcia moved to a new role of vaccine navigator within the health service to increase immunization rates, educate community members, and address concerns about the vaccine.

“As a vaccine navigator, I interact with people who might be hesitant to receive the vaccine and educate them on the facts about vaccines,” Garcia said. “I’ve worked in community events, immunization clinics, schools, food drives, churches and even door-to-door in this capacity. It’s always a victory when you can [help] others to get vaccinated after a good conversation.

While Garcia found the job rewarding, he explained how difficult it was to overcome the social determinants of health that affected the communities he served.

Overcome the challenges

“The LatinX community faces many unique and invisible barriers that prevent it from accessing resources or healthcare,” Garcia said. “An example of a challenge that I often overcome was transportation to a vaccination clinic. I knew the county resources that [would] pick up people and drive them [to and from] a clinic. Also, many did not have email, so I had all my documents printed in Spanish and delivered to their homes. ”

When asked what skills he learned from this experience, Garcia noted that the challenges only enhanced his preparations to become a leader in public health. “I had to be flexible, resilient, and adapt to the challenges the community faces,” Garcia said. “A lot of conversations don’t go as planned, and learning to talk to all kinds of people has been a core skill. ”

Excel at Mason

Thinking back to the classes he took at Mason’s, Garcia is convinced that his classes trained him for his roles in the Fairfax County Health Department. “I feel like what I learn in the classroom immediately relates to work and vice versa,” Garcia said. “My epidemiology classes gave me a solid understanding of when we had our data meetings to understand trends in COVID-19 cases or vaccinations in the county and target areas where we could improve vaccinations. ”

Garcia also noted how his biostatistics courses, such as Biostatistics for Public Health II (GCH-805), led by Jenna Krall, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Global and Community Health, also helped him prepare for situations. from the real world he encountered as a vaccine navigator.

“I like the structure of [GCH] 805 because it simulates a real work environment, ”Garcia said. “We have learned to use R [programming language] to work with datasets, find propagation measurements, and perform statistical analysis, among other things. The flexibility to choose our hypothesis and run whatever analyzes we decided on helped me learn the material better and I felt like a project or task that one would receive on the job.

After earning his MPH, Garcia’s goal is to work as an epidemiologist for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO)., or the National Institutes of Health (NIH). “I want to work with infectious disease surveillance in the future, and Mason has helped me with my goals so far,” Garcia said.

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