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Big Things Happen When Public Health Expert Sweats the Small Stuff

Pictured above: Oscar Alleyne (front center) with Tesfa Alexander, Sarah O’Dell, Kim Warren, and Michelle Cantu.
Pictured above: Oscar Alleyne (front center) with Tesfa Alexander, Sarah O’Dell, Kim Warren, and Michelle Cantu.

Everyone has to play a role, and everyone’s role has cascading impacts on how successful the outcomes will be in managing future disasters.

Even after two decades, several major outbreaks, and one earth-shattering pandemic, Oscar Alleyne, DrPH, still feels a calling to public health. Now, as head of MITRE’s Public Health division in the Health FFRDC, Alleyne leads a team that creates programs whose impacts can be felt across the country.

But this long-time New Yorker hasn’t forgotten the lessons he learned handling West Nile virus, mumps, RSV, cancer, and diabetes as a county health official. For Alleyne, those views from the ground can help MITRE make sure officials at all levels get the support they need.

From the Big Apple come Big Ideas

Alleyne started his public health career just outside New York City, in Rockland County. It’s one of New York’s smallest counties by area but among the most densely populated—a challenging combination for public health.

After years as the county epidemiologist, Alleyne first encountered MITRE through his work with the National Association of City and County Health Officials (NACCHO), where he presented in a Health Communication Science Innovation Jam and later worked with us to help create Sara Alert© early in the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Everyone has to play a role, and everyone’s role has cascading impacts on how successful the outcomes will be in managing future disasters.

Oscar Alleyne

“We sat down and discussed what we would need, and within about 24 to 48 hours, MITRE had developed a workable prototype,” Alleyne recalls. “The agility of innovation, the ability to work across the company and with outside partners, and the ability to bring in practical elements of testing, trials, and implementation are really unique to MITRE.”

A year later, he joined the company, stepping up to lead our public health portfolio.

“MITRE represented a challenge to really bring my innovative ideas and collectively drive the path forward,” he says.

Making Big Impacts by Seeing Small Details

For Alleyne—and many other public health officials—dramatic incidents like the pandemic are only a small part of their work. Public health encompasses a wealth of different opportunities. It looks at anything that might have an impact: environmental factors, economic factors, racial disparities, and other social determinants.

It’s a data-intense topic, and MITRE has long focused on gathering, sharing, and distilling health data. Yet, while Alleyne sees big data’s value and promise, he’s not forgotten the small-scale solutions he needed back in Rockland County.

“Big data doesn’t mean you have to go big all the time,” he says. “There’s an applied aspect, where localized or granular data can actually be much better in identifying the areas of deficiencies and the opportunities for action.”

Knowing what data is meaningful at smaller, more local levels means those professionals can make better decisions, and MITRE can create solutions that have immediate and amplified impact. Solving problems for a mixture of states, counties, tribal areas, or cities not only makes a safer world, but can provide proof of concept as we scale them up to larger federal sponsors. 

It’s why he highlights MITRE solutions like the Mental Wellness Index

, which developed a simple mental health rating and breaks down the data by ZIP Code, highlighting how to make the greatest impact at the point of the greatest need.

This approach, he says, can help ensure our ideas don’t just sit on a shelf, especially as the population and the public health community recover from the coronavirus pandemic.

Enduring COVID-19: Politically, Professionally, and Personally

During the pandemic, Alleyne saw the system under extreme stress: devastating impacts on communities with few resources, misinformation and disinformation running wild, and a vital need for the role of public health.

“The distrust in both science and attacks on public health officials was sobering,” Alleyne says.

During the pandemic, Alleyne and MITRE sought ways to add public health value without overburdening the health system. We expanded care to schools, communities, and other areas through the Increasing Community Access to Testing program (ICATT)

and helped tackle misinformation with programs like the Health Information Persuasion Exploration framework (HIPE), which provided those on the ground with tools to make better-informed decisions and address the loss of trust in science and in the scientific community.

While COVID-19’s declared public health emergency is ending,

the impact will be with us for a long time. Understanding the lessons, many painfully taught, is vital to moving forward.

For Alleyne, the experience demonstrated again that public health requires public buy-in and support, whether at the federal and state levels or in the counties and communities we serve.

“Everyone has to play a role,” he says, “And everyone’s role has cascading impact on how successful the outcomes will be in managing future disasters, future pandemics, emerging infections or even those chronic conditions that continue to face and plague us as communities.”

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