CSUN Prepared ‘Disease Detective’ for the Fight Against COVID-19

  • Raul Figueroa-Valenzuela M.P.H. '18 (Public Health-Applied Epidemiology) is an epidemiology analyst for the County of Los Angeles’ Department of Public Health. (Photo courtesy of Raul Figueroa-Valenzuela)

In simple terms, CSUN alumnus Raul Figueroa-Valenzuela describes himself as a disease detective.

And right now, his detective work has never been more critical.

Figueroa-Valenzuela M.P.H. ’18 (Public Health-Applied Epidemiology) is an epidemiology analyst for the County of Los Angeles’ Department of Public Health.

Beginning in January, with reports of growing cases of a novel coronavirus out of Wuhan, China, the department began to act and called on Figueroa-Valenzuela and its team of epidemiologists to do detective work: Track people down who had traveled from the virus hotspots abroad into Los Angeles County, tell them to quarantine and follow their progress.

With COVID-19 multiplying throughout the world, the tracking has become an immense task over the past two months. The purpose is clear for Figueroa-Valenzuela and his team — find, inform and halt the spread. This vital work is shining a spotlight on people like him.

“Now people are beginning to realize the work that epidemiologists and other public health professionals do and how important it is,” Figueroa-Valenzuela said. “Collecting vital information and having this data readily available is important towards implementing prevention, containment and mitigation strategies, establishing policy and, in general, keeping folks healthy. Educating and informing the public about COVID-19 is also one of our greatest weapons against the virus; knowledge is power.”

Figueroa-Valenzuela, the president of CSUN’s Public Health Alumni Chapter, has been working for the Department of Public Health for a year on its Food Safety Team. His regular responsibility is to identify and decrease the risk to the public from foodborne illness. But this international crisis shifted the 32-year-old’s work and the work of all his colleagues.

“It’s all hands on deck for COVID-19,” he said.

Despite the unpredictability of the outbreak and the changes in responsibility, Figueroa-Valenzuela said he was prepared. He said one significant reason was CSUN.

Receiving Knowledge, Giving Back Knowledge

Figueroa-Valenzuela, a native of Los Angeles, earned a bachelor’s degree in zoology from Oregon State and a master’s in ecology, evolution and conservation biology from San Francisco State. While working on his thesis at San Francisco State in disease ecology, he felt a pull toward epidemiology and studying diseases and health outcomes in human populations. In his search for an epidemiology program, CSUN stood out.

And Figueroa-Valenzuela later stood out in class.

“I remember him as a bright and inquisitive student with strong analytical skills,” said Lawrence Chu, CSUN professor of biostatistics and epidemiology.

“I’m quite proud of Raul and how he was able to apply the knowledge, skills and competencies learned in our Master’s in Public Health-Applied Epidemiology Program to his career,” Chu said. “We have a number of successful graduates in our program who have gone on to successful careers or have been admitted to doctoral programs in public health. My hope is that the program will continue to grow, to develop public health professionals for the future workforce to prevent/control diseases and injuries in the global population.”

Chu had recently tapped his former student to guest lecture to current students in CSUN’s Advanced Epidemiologic Research Methods class. Figueroa-Valenzuela did just that on March 11 — the final day of in-class instruction before the university shifted to virtual instruction.

“The students loved the in-depth operations of how he was able to interview and follow up with people testing for coronavirus,” Chu said. “They asked him many of the questions that we are asking today, And he gave his very professional opinion on each question.”

Nearly two years after earning his master’s degree, Figueroa-Valenzuela is implementing many of the practical elements of his studies at CSUN into his work to help the public. For example, in the classroom he learned about passive and active surveillance and is applying it today.

In the case of COVID-19, passive surveillance is when healthcare providers pass along data, which is then turned over to Figueroa-Valenzuela and his colleagues to compile and analyze, to monitor the virus and identify possible outbreaks. Active surveillance is more investigative.

“You get introduced to these things and even do them to a certain extent in the [CSUN] program. But it’s not until you start doing them on a day-to-day basis at work that you really become knowledgeable on these topics,” Figueroa-Valenzuela said. “But certainly, most things that I came across on a worksite, I saw or was told that I was going to see when I was in the program at CSUN. So it’s definitely been very, very helpful. I’m very happy with my experience at CSUN. It was incredible, and I’m always happy to give back.”

A Resource of Information

Working on the county’s Food Safety Team prepared Figueroa-Valenzuela for COVID-19 work. Before the coronavirus outbreak, he typically investigated and followed reportable diseases such as listeria, vibrio, brucellosis, salmonella and certain types of E.coli, as well as norovirus — a highly contagious gastrointestinal illness.

In this time of uncertainty, he has been asked often about COVID-19 and its relationship to food, Figueroa-Valenzuela said.

He offered a couple of general guidelines: If you’re unsure about food, wash it. To the knowledge of his team, food is not a significant source of COVID-19 transmission, he said. The virus primarily spreads from individual to individual through respiratory droplets expelled during sneezing and coughing, physical contact with ill individuals, and to a lesser extent, contaminated surfaces. People who work at restaurants and places where food is sold or served should not work if they are symptomatic. But he also gave a message of hope.

“If individuals follow social distancing guidelines suggested by infectious disease experts, we are going to reduce the rate of transmission, morbidity and mortality significantly in our communities,” Figueroa-Valenzuela said. “We must not allow our health care system to become overwhelmed with patients. Our goal is to reduce the incidence of new cases, thus giving our healthc are system the opportunity to treat those already affected by COVID-19 properly.

“No doubt, this virus will have a lasting impact on the economy and our social behavior,” he said. “However, public health should always come first. I think the general public would agree that our health is most important. We have the opportunity to unite as a community, country and globally. Together, we will defeat COVID-19.”

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