Dan Jernigan named as finalist for Service to America medal

Dr. Daniel Jernigan, Influenza Division Director

Dr. Daniel Jernigan, Influenza Division Director

For 25 years, Dan Jernigan, MD, MPH, has been fighting for public health.

His career at CDC started in 1994, when Dr. Jernigan was an Epidemic Intelligence Service officer, sometimes called a “Disease Detective,” working in the Respiratory Diseases Branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

He was asked to investigate an outbreak of a severe form of pneumonia, known as Legionnaires’ disease, on a cruise ship that had docked in New York Harbor. He spent days on the ship as it traveled on to Bermuda and eventually found the source of Legionella was the ship’s whirlpool spa system.

“We noticed that the more time people spent near the whirlpool spa, the more likely they were to get infection with Legionella,” said Dr. Jernigan, who now serves as director of CDC’s Influenza Division.

That investigation led to new regulations for monitoring respiratory diseases on ships, something that Dr. Jernigan cites as reason why he has continued his work in public health across 25 years. “The outcome of the work done at CDC is very tangible and proximal – the distance from the investigation to the direct public health impact can be very close.  We can clearly see the impact of our work,” said Dr. Jernigan. “There are very few careers where you can get that.”

Since that first investigation a quarter century ago, Dr. Jernigan has gone on to take leadership roles in CDC’s responses to dozens of contagious disease outbreaks both in the United States and around the world, including the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic. Dr. Jernigan has become one of the world’s leaders in identifying and responding to influenza threats. During his tenure at CDC, Dr. Jernigan has protected the health of hundreds of millions in America and around the globe, an accomplishment that earned him a nomination for a 2019 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medaexternal iconl and subsequent selection as a finalist for that honor.

“It’s an honor to be nominated,” Dr. Jernigan said. “I’m very grateful to have had the opportunity to work with the world-class scientists at CDC in the public health efforts that made this nomination possible.”

Dr. Jernigan exudes restless energy and excitement for his work, and is often seen rushing from one meeting to the next at CDC’s headquarters. He is known for his easy smile and funny quips, along with his ability to listen to colleagues; all characteristics which make him not just well-respected at CDC, but well-liked.

Nancy Messonnier, MD, Director of CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said that Dr. Jernigan’s “ability to manage and lead through any crisis with intelligence and humor and camaraderie” makes his presence valuable in any global health crises.

During the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, Dr. Jernigan was responsible for leading all of the agency’s epidemiological and laboratory response activities. Then in 2015, Dr. Jernigan was detailed to lead CDC’s global response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa for five months. He’s played similar roles in more than 50 other national and global disease outbreaks, including CDC’s responses to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the Anthrax attacks of 2001.

But perhaps most notable professionally are Dr. Jernigan’s accomplishments in the prevention and control of influenza, including overseeing government efforts intended to reduce the numbers of people who become sick, hospitalized or who die from seasonal flu every year.

As a leader in CDC’s Influenza Division, Jernigan oversees more than 300 scientists, public health experts, and other staff. During the 2017-2018 season, Dr. Jernigan’s team, working with public health and clinical partners, helped prevent an estimated 7 million influenza illnesses, 109,000 hospitalizations and 8,000 deaths through influenza vaccinations.

“My goal has been making sure the Influenza Division is always innovating,” said Jernigan “and that those innovations are translating into better surveillance, better virus characterization, and better pandemic preparation.” Innovations have included: development of real-time electronic public health lab reporting, use of state-specific sample size calculators to right-size U.S. virologic surveillance, significantly expanded use of next-generation sequencing at CDC and as a deployable lab, incorporation of disease and virus forecasting, and development of multiple operational frameworks for risk assessment and pandemic response.

For Anne Schuchat, MD, CDC’s Principal Deputy Director, commends this ability to innovate.  “[Dr. Jernigan] is able to see very far ahead to where we need to go and find innovative ways to get there, whether it’s reinventing how we characterize flu viruses or making laboratories more efficient and ready to surge when there’s a pandemic or bad flu season,” she said.

But whether Dr. Jernigan is looking to solve a problem in real time, or one that has yet to happen, it’s the fact that he’s able to do so every day that keeps him at CDC. “The ability to effect change very quickly and having the tools to do it is what makes it worth it,” he said. “Plus, I get to work with incredible people as well.”

Learn more about the work Dr. Jernigan and the Influenza Division are doing by visiting www.cdc.gov/flu.

To learn more about the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals, visit https://servicetoamericamedals.orgexternal icon.

Page last reviewed: May 7, 2019