M.P.H. alumnae find Gator connection during CDC deployment to U.S.-Mexico border

By Katarina Fiorentino, B.H.S. Communication Sciences and Disorders

Caplan, Gatewood at Ft. Bliss
UF alumnae Alexis Caplan and Johanzynn Gatewood met when both were deployed by the CDC to the Administration for Children and Families, Office of Refugee Resettlement Emergency Intake Site at Fort Bliss.

The saying “The Gator Nation is everywhere” was never more true for UF College of Public Health and Health Professions alumnae Alexis Caplan, B.H.S. ’13, M.P.H. ’14, and Johanzynn Gatewood, B.A. ’14, M.P.H. ’17, when they deployed last summer to the Administration for Children and Families, Office of Refugee Resettlement Emergency Intake Site in El Paso, Texas, in response to unaccompanied minors crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Caplan and Gatewood are both part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Global Rapid Response Team, a highly trained workforce of public health experts across the agency who are ready to deploy at a moment’s notice.

Prior to deploying to the same team at Fort Bliss, Caplan and Gatewood did not know one another but soon discovered they shared a tie to the Gator Nation. That Gator connection helped them adjust to the demands of their deployment, while also providing ample opportunities for trading Gainesville memories.

During their time at the refugee emergency intake site, Caplan and Gatewood assisted with infection control and epidemiological surveillance, focusing on mitigating the spread of COVID-19 among children and staff. The team faced some unique challenges, as well as some more universal ones experienced by many public health professionals during the pandemic, including accommodating space for quarantine and isolation and overcoming vaccine hesitancy.

Referencing interdisciplinary case studies from the Master of Public Health program, they describe how experiences from their time at UF, and more specifically PHHP, prepared them to tackle the challenges of their deployment.

“For me, the therapeutic communication class I took in undergrad really prepared me for interacting with different groups of people representing various cultural backgrounds,” Caplan said.

Gatewood majored in anthropology during her undergraduate studies, with a minor in health disparities: “I also feel that my classes helped prepare me to understand and interact with various groups.”

In adapting to their responsibilities at Fort Bliss, Caplan and Gatewood employed newly-learned skills, as well as experiences from their current roles within CDC.

“In my day job, I’m involved in epidemiological surveillance, where I review data collected and reports from clinicians to improve public health programs. During my deployment, I switched roles, and I collected the data, so it was nice to apply my field epidemiology skills,” said Caplan, a public health analyst at CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in the World Trade Center Health Program.

Gatewood, a public health advisor at CDC’s Center for Surveillance, Epidemiology, and Laboratory Services (CSELS) in the Division of Laboratory Systems, reflected on how the teachings she learned in her M.P.H. program helped her navigate new challenges.

“I work mostly in communications, but this deployment was unique for me in that I was involved in surveillance and infection control, so I really had to go back to the basics of my public health training that I learned in graduate school,” she said.

Gatewood, Caplan at restaurantBoth Caplan and Gatewood credit their deployment with the formation of a new friendship.

“Being away from family and friends on long deployments can be challenging, so having colleagues you can hang out with outside of work is important for resilience,” Caplan said. “Even though we have different home programs at CDC, we still find the time to hang out outside of work because of the strong friendship we developed while we were in El Paso.”