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Barwon Health / Barwon South West Public Health Unit

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How Barwon South West disease detectives are decoding COVID-19

Tuesday, 16 November 2021

Prior to the Covid pandemic, many people would have struggled to define the role of an epidemiologist.

But over almost two years, the public have become well acquainted with the professionals, often dubbed disease detectives.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, epidemiologists search for the cause of disease, identify people who are at risk, determine how to control or stop the spread or prevent it from happening again.

The work of Barwon South West public health unit epidemiologists Dr Michael Muleme and Dr Bridgette McNamara has been vital to understanding Covid.

Their work examining school outbreaks in the region has helped inform Victoria’s plan to get kids back to school.

Dr McNamara said she had always loved maths and data.

“To apply that to public health has really is exciting for me,” she said.

“What we analyse can contribute to the health of the community and improving health access.”

Dr McNamara started with Barwon Health mid last year, and was hired during the second wave in a part time role in the Barwon contact tracing monitoring team working on the Covid response.

This led into to an expanded role with the public health unit in July.

The Barwon South West Public Health Unit was established in January and currently employs over 300 people, many of whom are seconded staff from other departments.

This workforce has supported the unit across a large range of Covid response activities including testing, tracing, vaccination and administration support.

Dr McNamara previously worked at the University of Melbourne.

During her career, Dr McNamara has worked across a range of areas.

She had worked with an Aboriginal health group looking at diabetes and other chronic disease, and researched topics including preventable hospitalisations across a range of conditions in early childhood while at Melbourne University.

Dr Muleme is interested in infectious diseases, and prior to Covid worked in Africa as part of outbreak investigations of a zoonotic disease transferred from livestock to humans.

He has also worked with the health department looking at vaccine preventable diseases looking at issues including flu in aged care, and joined the Covid response in February last year, in the early stages of the pandemic.

“When I got recruited into the Covid unit back in February 2020, I was only recruited for three months and was meant to go back to my normal job, but I never did,” he said.

Recently, Dr Muleme and Dr McNamara have been looking at Covid cases in school aged children and factors in transmission at local schools.

Dr Muleme said the public health unit had some of the best data in the state due to the quality of our local contact tracing unit.

The epidemiologists looked at outbreaks in education settings and households affected, providing data helping guide decision making on students’ returning to school after remote learning.

Their work analysing the demographics where children have been affected has helped inform who the PHU should target with outreach.

Dr Muleme said people definitely were not aware what the role of an epidemiologist was before the Covid pandemic.

“Now everyone is following the data and looking at trends,” he said.

Dr Muleme and Dr McNamara expect the pandemic will be providing work for some time to come.

Dr Muleme expected there could be work around booster vaccinations and immunity, and how often people would require booster shots.

He anticipated epidemiologists would also be examining pockets of the community that were not vaccinated, and how the dynamics of the disease affect them.

Dr McNamara said there were many more priority areas in the region that public health would be involved in times to come, such as the Buruli ulcer.

Both Dr McNamara and Dr Muleme agreed that the region’s enthusiastic uptake of the Covid vaccine had been heartening to witness.

Dr Muleme said the Covid pandemic had presented a once in a lifetime opportunity.

“Something like this has not happened in the last 100 years and to be able to be involved is a huge opportunity for us,” he said.

PHOTO: Barwon South West public health unit epidemiologists Dr Michael Muleme and Dr Bridgette McNamara. 

Photo courtesy of the Geelong Advertiser. Story by Tamara McDonald - the Geelong Advertiser.