May 28, 2020

Data Management in Response to COVID-19: A Q&A with Rad Cunningham (MPA ’10)


As a senior epidemiologist with the Washington State Department of Health, how are you addressing the coronavirus pandemic?  

As the manager of the new Climate Change and Health Section of the Washington State Department of Health, I support my staff in cycling on and off of our agency’s incident management team (IMT), by making sure they are able to maintain their core functions, like wildfire or legionella response. I am also a senior epidemiologist and when I am serving on the IMT, I am a data systems manager.

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, I am working on a team focused on tracing the viral outbreaks. Our main focus is scaling our ability to track the outbreak from just one case and a handful of tests, to creating a system that can handle 13,000 tests per day along with contact tracing. Using data driven tools including, R, SAS, and RedCap, my team and I are executing this this with humility, trust, and accountability in one another, as there is often less time for review.

How does holding duel degrees in both Public Administration and Public Health impact how you approach your work today?  

I wrote a memo! At one point, we had to balance how we interpreted guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), while managing conflict between the lab and epidemiologists and making sure our solutions worked with our lab and epidemiological data systems.

The issue was mundane and focused on answering, “what unique identifier should we use?” At the time, these ID’s were to function as a ticket to access very limited testing capacities and the epidemiologists needed tight control over who got an ID. Our solution had to work with lab systems, surveillance systems, and fit CDC guidelines. And, in case you have never worked with epidemiologists before, they have VERY strong opinions about the minutiae of data.

At the end of the day, the solution had to work, lab and epidemiology staff had to accept it, and it had to be acceptable by both local public health and the CDC. My MPH was why I was in the room, but my MPA gave me the tools to quickly solve the issue so we could move forward. Practicing writing memos in a low stress and supportive environment equipped me with the skillset I needed to organize the issue and get a clear decision from leadership in the short period of time available.

What challenges have you faced in your work during this unprecedented time and how did you address them? 

When we got the first positive coronavirus result from the Seattle Flu Study, I knew immediately we needed to be equipped to do contact tracing at scale and track this data in our surveillance system.  Once we received a positive community result, I pulled my team together to build tools to track the data and scale it quickly. I couldn’t have been more thankful and in awe of the competence and dedication of my fellow epidemiologists.

If you could give Evans School students one piece of advice, what would it be it be?  

I encourage other white Evans School men to normalize talking about racism and sexism to other white men in your organization. It is important to listen to the women and minorities you work with, while working to understand your own biases. I use the normalize, organize, formalize framework to work against institutional racism and sexism in my organization. It isn’t always easy and I misstep sometimes, but this is how you dismantle institutional racism and sexism.