Little-known federal program gives Minnesota leg up in responding to COVID-19

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A little-known federal program is giving Minnesota a big advantage in tracking and understanding the effects of COVID-19.

Minnesota is among 10 sites around the country that make up the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Emerging Infections Program (EIP). Each site has a group of experts whose sole job is rooting out new diseases.

The program began more than 25 years ago as the country was in the throes of the HIV-AIDS epidemic, as experts realized that the public health system in the United States was woefully unprepared to handle emerging infections.

“We get extra money from the CDC, which means we do gold standard surveillance,” said Dr. Richard Danila, Deputy Epidemiologist for the Minnesota Department of Health.

Danila runs the EIP unit at MDH, which receives about $5.7 million from the CDC annually to fund as many as 45 full-time and student workers.

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“Whenever there is a new disease, the first thing the Emerging Infection Program sites do collectively is say, ‘How can we contribute? What can we do?’ We did that for Anthrax, we did that for 2009-2010 pandemic influenza, we’ve done that for other diseases,” Danila said.

In a normal year, the EIP teams would be studying hospitalized patients with the flu this time of year, but the teams around the country — including at MDH — shifted their focus to find commonalities and trends among the sickest patients with COVID-19.

“We’re going to do a deep dive, in-depth chart review of hospitalized cases that most other states won’t be able to do. We’ll be looking at underlying health conditions, we’ll be looking at pregnant women who are cases, we’ll be looking at deaths, well be looking the clinical course of the person,” Danila said.

In some cases, EIP sites have been first to detect certain emerging diseases, but that did not happen with COVID-19, in part because Danila says the disease first emerged in states where EIP sites don’t exist.

But now that it’s widespread across Minnesota and beyond, the local EIP team will give this state a leg up on responding to the global pandemic.

“So we’ll benefit ourselves, and then, of course, we’ll collectively, all 10 EIP sites together, will benefit the nation as a whole,” Danila said.