Public Health Workforce Ensures Rapid Pandemic Response at Major Central American Port

Photo credit: Gabriella Corrigan

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, no one quite knew how the unprecedented global health emergency would affect people’s lives, let alone routine activities like goods coming in and out of ports around the globe. As the world headed into lockdown in early 2020, people and industries everywhere were faced with uncertainty and questions about how to maintain essential services while mitigating the spread of disease. 

For one of the largest ports in Central America–the Manzanillo International Terminal, near the Port of Colon–this was a question that needed answering fast. In collaboration with the Panama Canal, the Manzanillo International Terminal is an essential artery for global trade, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. It also serves as a major thoroughfare for both commercial and cruise ships carrying thousands of people from around the world, making it a potentially high-risk gateway for the spread of COVID-19. Thanks to a strong health system equipped with prepared field epidemiologists and public health professionals, it instead became a key point to stopping the spread of COVID-19. 

The most pressing concern then was figuring out how they would continue to facilitate the movement of thousands of ships while not serving as a gateway for the spread of COVID-19. Eager to keep employees, travelers, and Panamaians safe, the Port of Colon Department of Sanitation enlisted the support of trainees and graduates of the Panama Field Epidemiology Training Program (FETP) to conduct COVID-19 surveillance and outbreak response at the port. 

“Panama as the hub of the Americas, air, sea, and land, had to lead many strategies to help save lives, especially those who had been stranded in many parts of the world and unfortunately were denied entry to their ports due to fear of infection, ” said Panama FETP Director Lourdes Moreno Castillo.

Working with sanitation inspectors at the port, the Panama FETP and Panama Ministry of Health supported the development of new health and safety measures for every ship entering the port. From training port inspectors to packing hundreds of COVID-19 tests into pilot boats for ships anchored offshore, field epidemiologists played an integral part in ensuring the health and safety of numerous populations. 

Since implementing the effort in 2020, port inspectors and field epidemiologists have inspected every ship that has come through the port.

“The technical decisions that were made in relation to the definition of behavior or health interventions on ships are basically made by epidemiologists either with a university education or field epidemiologists,” said Pablo Gonzalez with the Panama FETP.  “In other words, the experience of officials training in FETP is very important to be able to evaluate the history or risks of a vessel and make use of the quality of the data that generates the information, decisions and health actions that would correspond to the outcome.”

Thanks to the Panamanian FETP’s efforts to establish a skilled public health workforce to detect and respond to disease threats, the Port of Colon was able to rapidly prepare their inspectors and implement pandemic response measures. 

The Panamanian FETP is just one of more than 90 programs around the world working to build health workforce capacity for disease detection and response. TEPHINET, a program of The Task Force for Global Health, serves as the global network of FETPs, supporting the growth and development of these programs and initiatives like the one carried out at the port. TEPHINET develops, connects, and mobilizes a global field epidemiology workforce to strengthen public health systems and advance health security at key transport points like the Port of Colon, ensuring the continuation of global trade while protecting citizens against health threats. More than 20,000 disease detectives in over 100 countries have trained in a TEPHINET-member FETP and have collectively investigated more than 14,000 outbreaks.

As the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted, in today’s interconnected world a health threat anywhere is a health threat everywhere, and places like the Port of Colon can play a key role in stopping the spread of disease by having a strong public health workforce. 

To mark the essential role the Panama FETP and TEPHINET played in protecting the Port, Panamanians and travelers, the Department of Sanitation honored the two agencies during a September 2022 celebration at the TEPHINET conference. TEPHINET Advisory Board Chair Dr. Aamer Ikram, who accepted the award, spoke about the collaborative effort involved in such work (see video).

Efforts like this emphasize the need for and success of TEPHINET’s vision of a world where all people are protected by a field epidemiology workforce capable of detecting and responding to health threats before they become emergencies.

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