Feds at Work: Led response efforts for dozens of disease crises, including Ebola, SARS and West Nile virus

Greatly improved our country’s ability to identify, prepare for and respond to inevitable flu pandemics

Daniel Jernigan with the CDC (Photo: courtesy of the CDC)

During his first year as a junior officer at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Daniel Jernigan was called to investigate an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease on a cruise ship in New York Harbor. He spent days on the Bermuda-bound ship until he found the source of Legionella, which had sickened 52 passengers and led to one death. It was in the ship’s water system.

That was the start of a 25-year CDC career. Jernigan has gone on to lead the agency’s responses to dozens of contagious disease outbreaks and flu pandemics in the U.S. and around the world, and has become the nation’s leader in identifying and responding to influenza threats.

“Daniel Jernigan’s leadership in the global public health battle against contagious diseases has protected the health of hundreds of millions of Americans,” said Dr. Emily Eisenberg Lobelo, associate policy director at CDC’s Influenza Division.

“While he has played a critical role in more than 50 national and global contagious disease outbreak responses, most notable are his accomplishments in the prevention and control of influenza,” she said.

As a leader for the Influenza Division for the past 13 years, Jernigan oversees nearly 300 scientists and public health experts. During the 2017–18 flu season, Jernigan’s team, working with public health and clinical partners, estimates the vaccinations they recommended prevented about 7 million influenza illnesses, 109,000 hospitalizations and 8,000 deaths nationwide.

Jernigan has taken numerous innovative steps to improve surveillance, prevention and control of influenza, including the use of genetic sequencing to characterize more than 6,000 influenza viruses, resulting in better and faster ways to understand the disease.

“The influenza virus has been evolving, and we were not able to characterize more and more viral strains by the traditional method,” said Dr. Anne Schuchat, CDC’s principal deputy director. “Dan flipped the process and was able to speed up information about the viruses circulating and get information on every single strain.”

Recently, Jernigan took the technology one step further by directing his team to develop a portable sequencing toolkit — known as “Sequencing in a Backpack” — enabling the CDC to send personnel to other countries to evaluate viruses rather than have the country’s researchers send samples to the CDC.

The genetic information is fed into the Influenza Risk Assessment Tool, which uses laboratory and epidemiological data generated by Jernigan’s division. It rates emerging flu viruses based on the likelihood they would become pandemics or cause severe illness if they spread widely.

Influenza has been Jernigan’s focus, but it is only one part of his expertise.

Jernigan’s approach to difficult public health challenges was honed by the 2003 outbreak of viral respiratory illness SARS in Taiwan. He said this taught him “how one responds to a significant problem by breaking down the problem into bits that you can accomplish and seeing that through.”

Also influential was an assignment early in his career to work with companies developing standards for electronic health records. He figured out how to incorporate public health into those standards and enable electronic systems at a laboratory in one state to communicate seamlessly with a public health entity in another state and with the CDC.

“Those are longer range, tedious things that have a big impact,” Jernigan said. “If you want to do public health, you have to do things that are crisis driven and things that aren’t, so that when you have a crisis it’s not a problem.”

Schuchat said that is one of Jernigan’s great strengths.

“He is able to see very far ahead and where we need to go and find innovative ways to get there, whether it’s reinventing how we characterize flu viruses or making laboratories more efficient and ready to surge when there’s a pandemic or bad flu season,” she said.

Daniel Jernigan is one of 26 finalists for the 2019 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals, presented annually by the nonpartisan, nonprofit Partnership for Public Service to celebrate employees who have made significant contributions to our nation’s health, safety and prosperity.

Help share their stories using #Sammies2019, and please help us recognize more inspiring federal employees in 2020 by submitting your nominations now.

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The Partnership works to revitalize our federal government by inspiring a new generation to serve and by transforming the way government works.

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