COVID-19 Corps: Dedicated to Detroit

Like many major U.S. cities, Detroit, MI, was hit hard early on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Following the first confirmed case in March 2020, the city found itself facing the largest COVID-19 caseload outside of the East Coast. But Detroit is also the home to a team of talented public-health professionals, and thanks to their efforts, along with those of their dedicated colleagues at the Detroit Department of Public Health, Detroit was able to flatten its curve and became a model for other cities.

As an environmental health specialist at the Detroit Health Department, Ryan Edwards is part of the Facilities Investigation team, tasked with making sure that local businesses are following CDC guidelines and local executive orders. He doesn’t always reach a receptive audience. “But I have to put public health first,” Edwards said. “Especially with this being the city I grew up in, I feel like I have a personal stake in this. I really want to make sure that my community is safe, healthy and thriving.”

Nurse epidemiologist Cassandra Scarfone, another Detroit native, had the same idea. She completed her master’s degree in public health while serving as a pediatric ICU nurse. “I graduated directly into a pandemic, and they needed me at home,” she said. “It’s an excellent way to give back to the city I love. I want everyone here to be protected and safe.” Helping her community has always been a passion. “I knew that I wanted to go into public health before I became a nurse.” In fact, Scarfone is so serious about epidemiology and the tracking of communicable diseases that she has a map of a famous 19th-century cholera outbreak on her wall to remind her of the historic impact she and her colleagues have had on their community.

The Detroit Health Department originally hosted a team of about 40 of the CDC Foundation’s COVID-19 Corps workers, including Edwards and Scarfone, with the help of a $15 million donation provided by TikTok.

Cassandra Scarfone, nurse epidemiologist

Edwards at work

Ryan Edwards, environmental health specialist

Director of Health Promotion Yolanda Hill-Ashford and her co-workers were stretched thin at the beginning of the pandemic and were happy to have the help.

“I think when surge staff started to come, it started to feel like, ‘Okay, somebody else cares. We really are in this together.’ It was such a phenomenal gift by the CDC Foundation from TikTok, to be able to have such skilled folks step in and assist in this pandemic. They just came in and rolled their sleeves up and haven't looked back.” And they’ve made a definite impact in the community.

Edwards has gone on ride-along investigations with the Detroit Police. “It really takes you going out there to see that there’s all kinds of community spread going on. Just because I hear a manager tell me everything I want to hear, doesn’t mean it’s happening in practice.” But he’s seen a lot of compliance as well. “I say, ‘everything you’re doing is great, keep up the good work,’ and then that boosts their confidence, like ‘Oh, I got a blessing from the Detroit Health Department, we’re doing the right thing here.’”

Scarfone’s interactions with her fellow Detroiters have been positive as well. In her role as a case investigator, she was able to combine her practical clinical skill with her newly gained analytical insights to help identify how COVID-19 is affecting the city. “I was calling people who are positive, and collecting an enormous amount of information from them—their demographics, their clinical experience, what their symptoms are like, who they've seen and where they've been.”

This data is key in tracking the spread of the disease. But Scarfone was also able to provide valuable advice and resources, like helping secure food delivery for seniors and even finding affordable housing for a young man who needed to isolate.

Ever since I was young, I always knew it was important to give back to the community that raised and educated me.

Hill-Ashford is impressed with these COVID-19 Corps members. “Most of the surge staff, when I interviewed them, I was asking questions like, what is your greatest fear in taking this job, and I was expecting them to talk about contracting COVID itself, but the greatest fear was not being able to be meaningful in their role. That meant so much and is so telling of the type of people who landed here at the health department.”

Scarfone is thankful for the opportunity to serve. “Just knowing that you can bring a sense of relief to someone who's worried they have COVID and worried for their families, and you can educate them and empower them going forward.”

Edwards is equally grateful to be able to act on his deep connection to the city. “Ever since I was young, I always knew it was important to give back to the community that raised and educated me,” he said. “Being a product of the city of Detroit public school education, I’m really grateful to the CDC Foundation and TikTok for offering me that opportunity to fulfill this promise I made to myself a long time ago, especially in this time of really urgent need.”


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