Maureen Bartee has seen a lot during her two decades with the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) in the United States, but when news started to emerge about Covid-19 late last year it felt different. “We knew something was going to happen. I think when you know and you’re preparing sometimes you aren’t sure ‘is this really it?’. . . [But] it was pretty clear pretty soon after we heard about what was happening in China that this was going to be a big issue.”

Bartee is associate director for global health security within the Center for Global Health at the CDC. She has been involved in the agency’s response to outbreaks of polio, Sars and Ebola and worked in public health in Africa and Central Asia. In her current role she is focused on implementing the Global Health Security Agenda, a group of 69 countries, NGOs and international companies working to improve capacity to deal with infectious diseases around the world.

The group works to build up countries’ capabilities in disease detection, laboratory capacity, surveillance and emergency management so that there are people in place who are trained if there is an infectious disease emergency.

Control measures

One of the ways the CDC looks to do this is through the Field Epidemiology Training Programme which it says has helped train more than 18,000 “disease detectives” in more than 80 countries since 1980. Bartee established the Kenyan branch of the programme in the early 2000s, which teaches the process of investigating an unknown disease.

Maureen Bartee in Bangladesh in 2000
Maureen Bartee in Bangladesh in 2000

“They would learn things like . . . what kind of samples should be collected, what are the ethical issues around doing the investigation, how do you analyse the data and then make sense of the data to make good decisions about control measures that should be put in place. Is this an infectious disease where you need to warn other people or is it maybe an environmental contaminant and you need to check the water, check the food?”

While Bartee stresses “we haven’t seen something like this for 100 years”, she believes the Covid-19 pandemic is a good example of the challenges caused by how hard it is to “convince people to really take prevention seriously”.

“It’s a lot harder to convince the people who fund activities to fund activities for prevention. When you don’t have a sick child to say ‘look if you give the money, you’re going to save this child’. It’s all about not having things happen in the first place. And I think it’s difficult for the ministries for finance to really understand how much it matters to put money towards prevention versus just response.”

Bartee’s mother is from Moate in Co Westmeath. The eldest of nine children, she settled in San Francisco in the 1960s, working there as a nurse for years. Bartee is also a second cousin of golfer Shane Lowry. “His grandfather and my grandmother were brother and sister . . . we’ve met but I don’t really know him.” However, she says she’s “really excited for him and we do watch all of his matches and everything”.