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Wednesday, August 10, 2022

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SDSU community health workers set up mobile testing sites in some of the hardest hit areas of San Diego County through Communities Fighting COVID! Photo: Eric Zentmyer SDSU community health workers set up mobile testing sites in some of the hardest hit areas of San Diego County through Communities Fighting COVID! Photo: Eric Zentmyer

An SDSU Institute that Serves Behind the Scenes

For nearly 30 years, the Institute for Public Health has focused on improving the public’s health through critical programs for nutrition assistance, HIV and substance use.
By Padma Nagappan

When a recent news investigation found discrepancies at a county contractor-run COVID-19 hotel where people testing positive and needing a place to stay are isolated, the county asked San Diego State University’s Institute for Public Health (IPH) to step in. The institute’s experts were asked to review the program’s procedures in place, provide best practices going forward, and deliver a final report by June.

Founded nearly 30 years ago in 1992, this relatively low profile institute does a lot of critical work that informs programs developed and implemented by the County of San Diego’s Health & Human Services Agency, the California Department of Public Health and other agencies, local, regional and federal.

“Our work is not on the public’s radar because we often work with the agencies rather than community members,” said Corinne McDaniels-Davidson, IPH director and an epidemiologist who has been with the institute since 2005.

“But the impact of the projects we work on is wide and far reaching. We also focus on making this a sustainable effort into the future. And a good majority of our students stay local, so the training we give them has a ripple effect in our local communities,” she added.

During the early days of the pandemic, SDSU’s leading public health experts launched Communities Fighting COVID!, a program under the aegis of IPH that recruits and trains community health workers to act as contact tracers and mobile testing staff. They work with some of San Diego’s hardest hit communities that have borne a disproportionate share of COVID-19 cases and deaths.  

The institute focuses on promoting public health by providing program evaluations, training for current and future health care workers, service based research projects, and partnerships that leverage SDSU’s deep knowledge and roots in the local community. Some of its key projects focus on substance use interventions, cancer care outreach, and preventive measures for infectious diseases.

Key projects and people

McDaniels-Davidson works closely with fellow epidemiologist Lisa Asmus, an evaluation coordinator who has been with IPH since she was a graduate student in 1997. Asmus is principal investigator on several long-term grants that fund key projects within the institute, and has deep relationships with partner agencies who appreciate her intimate knowledge of end users that informs their programs.

Alongside colleagues Martha Crowe, Tanya Penn and Kanako Sturgis, they evaluate existing county level intervention programs for substance use, and preventing diseases such as HIV and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). The institute also serves as a state contractor for a supplemental nutrition program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC).

Asmus hires and preceptors graduate students to train and work on assessing the programs, works closely with government agencies to design projects and develop grant proposals, and spends much of her time on HIV prevention, hepatitis C prevention, and a syringe exchange program for substance users. 

“I worked with Family Health Centers on a county grant to document the needs of those who inject drugs, a report that has been widely distributed,” Asmus said. “We presented our report to the County Board of Supervisors recently and sought to lift a ban on funding so syringe exchange centers could be set up.”

Asmus has trained several generations of students over her 24 years at the institute. IPH trainees go on to work at the HHSA, community clinics including Family Health Centers of San Diego, departments of health, University of California San Diego Health and other institutions.

Originally set up as the practice arm of SDSU’s School of Public Health, IPH is the school’s mainstay for community engagement service projects and contracts, managing roughly $11 million in grants this year.

“We often work on programs with shoestring budgets because we observe the need in the community,” Asmus said. “When we work with the agencies, we are also sort of training them because we create the data system and the surveys, and we help them with the reports so we’re building the skills of community agency staff in a sense too.”

Providing intrinsic value is a tradition with many of the institute’s programs and how it approaches contracts.

“We don’t just come in and do what’s needed, we very much integrate with the organizations we work with, so there is a lot of give and take and a close, symbiotic relationship,” McDaniels-Davidson said. “We do want to improve the skills and build the capacity of every organization we work with, so IPH is part facilitator, part trainer, part mentor and part executor of the programs.”