How a Sammies finalist solved a health crisis mystery tied to vaping

By Monica Wilder | May 28, 2020

Before the nation had to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, a group of public health officials worked behind the scenes to solve a mysterious health crisis that sent 2,800 young people to emergency rooms around the country. In only a few months, Dr. Peter Briss, and a team he led at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, identified a chemical compound found in vaping products that was causing life-threatening lung injuries. They communicated the health danger to the public and ultimately saved lives. 

The work of Dr. Briss and his team reflects the Partnership’s Public Service Leadership Model, so we broke down his actions into the subcompetencies found under the model’s “leading change” section.

Vision Setting

As more states started reporting cases of these lung injuries, Briss quickly set a vision for a path ahead that included three things: pinpointing the outbreak’s cause, preventing further hospitalizations and deaths, and quickly getting information to the public. He also communicated this vision to 50 state public health agencies—each with its own regulations, guidelines and systems—so they could work together.

Adaptability

At first, Briss and his team didn’t know how to track nationwide cases, so they adapted and repurposed a system normally used to track food-borne illnesses. When that system couldn’t read the different types of data coming in, the team created a special code to rewrite the information.

Innovation and Creativity

To determine what caused the outbreak, the laboratory teams collected lung and vaping product samples from patients and rapidly developed an innovative diagnostic assessment to determine what toxins were present. “That kind of work in a research lab would usually take a few years to do, and they got it up and running and out there for public health action within weeks,” said Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director at the CDC.

Influence

The team confirmed vaping products were the cause of the illness, but public health officials were still hesitant to say vaping was unsafe because it was viewed as a better alternative to cigarettes. Briss influenced public health officials to issue guidance informing the public to stop using vaping products completely until the offending substance could be isolated. “This was not a new virus or germ. This was a need for behavior change,” Schuchat said.

After the team identified Vitamin E acetate as the chemical causing the illnesses, Briss also convinced vaping product manufacturers to work with the CDC in addressing the situation.

Read more about Briss and his team as an example of leading through change.


Monica Wilder