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Outbreak News

She stays fit, keeps eye on outbreak

Friday, November 28, 2003

By Anita Srikameswaran, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Dr. Virginia Dato is the picture of public health.

Between a pager that does e-mail and a cell phone that's at the ready specifically because of the hepatitis A outbreak, she wears a pedometer on the waistband of her skirt. She tries to follow fitness guidelines that recommend taking 10,000 steps per day. Before 10 a.m. Tuesday, she had logged 2,389 steps. At 1:30 p.m., she was up to 4,128 and by 9 p.m. was at 6,622.

The small fanny pack around the 46-year-old's waist is crammed with papers, some of which are white slips that bear information about Pennsylvania's Free Quitline, a 24-hour toll-free phone service -- 1-877-724-1090 -- for people trying to stop smoking.

As a public health physician, Dato reports to the Bureau of Epidemiology at the state Department of Health. Her office space in the State Office Building, Downtown, is utilitarian. A bottle of balsamic vinegar sits on a filing cabinet to substitute for oil-based dressings on her lunchtime salads and subs. She carries a travel-size bottle of hand sanitizer in her purse and a large pump bottle of the same rests on a table by her desk.

During the first five days of the outbreak, she helped with the investigation of cases, particularly those that were unusual in some way. She worked with people from the state Department of Agriculture to make plans to deal with the problem. One day, she was the physician on duty for an immune globulin clinic running in the Dome of Beaver County Community College.

Dato is the main liaison for staffers from the Atlanta-based U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who are in the region toiling away on what she has dubbed the "backward investigation," meaning the determination of how the outbreak started.

She is part trouble-shooter and part hypothesizer or educated guesser. One Sunday at home, she examined a green onion under a microscope, trying to get an idea of how hepatitis A virus could have clung to the vegetable.

She's quick to point out that she is only one of many public health workers who are collaborating to investigate an epidemic and bring it to an end. At the peak, 48 state and federal employees were in the trenches.

"Nobody reports to me here," Dato said. "We're just all colleagues who work very hard together."

Dato graduated from the University of Pittsburgh's medical school and then specialized in pediatrics and infectious diseases. She also trained in public health and has a master's degree in the field from Columbia University. She worked in New Jersey, where she grew up, before coming back to Pittsburgh.

In what's known as the state health department's Southwest District, Dato covers 10 counties around but not including Allegheny County. That translates into 1.4 million people who don't have a full-service local health department. She works closely with several public health nurses.

"The population is my patient," Dato said.

More on this outbreak: Chi-Chi's Hepatitis A Outbreak

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