“One of the most important moments was when the CDC’s lab first found evidence in some samples that Zika was destroying the brain tissue of newborns,” Honein recalled in an interview.
Honein quickly assembled an emergency response team of nearly 200 people to monitor, study and respond to the Zika virus. The team eventually figured out that the virus was transmitted by mosquito bites as well as sexual contact.
The CDC released recommendations for travel by pregnant women and women of childbearing age across the Americas and is still monitoring 7,300 children in the United States and its territories for long-term health problems. Those include developmental delays, seizures and vision problems, among others.
“The Zika story really isn’t over,” said Honein, director of the CDC’s congenital and developmental disorders division. “We still are following these children.” And Zika remains a threat in nearly 100 countries, she said.
Honein will be awarded a Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal at a gala Tuesday night. Considered the “Oscars of government service,” the “Sammies” are given by the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that tries to make government more effective.
The awards will be given to seven employees or teams from across the government, along with a first-ever “Spirit of Service” award to Jeffrey P. Bezos, founder of Amazon.com, for his work to advance space exploration and national security. His Amazon Web Services provides secure cloud computing used by the intelligence community, the military and first responders to collect, analyze and share information in real time, according to the award citation. (Bezos also owns The Washington Post.)
The awards come at a time of heightened friction between the federal workforce and President Trump, who has vowed to “drain the swamp” of ineffective government agencies and reduce the number of federal employees.
“These are not normal times for our nation’s civil servants. Yet, they continue to serve in extraordinary ways, and we need to recognize and celebrate their important work,” Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, said in a news release.
The top honor, Federal Employee of the Year, will be presented to Daniel L. Kastner, scientific director of the intramural research division of the National Institutes of Health’s Human Genome Research Institute. Kastner discovered the genetic underpinnings of a family of debilitating “autoinflammatory” diseases using very early maps of the human genome more than 20 years ago.
“What we’ve discovered is a family of diseases that are inherited disorders of inflammation,” Kastner said in an interview. Therapies based on this research have been used to treat strokes, fevers, arthritis and pain caused by these disorders.
The Career Achievement Medal will be given to Marshalyn Yeargin-Allsopp, who developed surveillance systems for the CDC that revealed the prevalence of autism, developmental disabilities and other conditions. In 1968, Yeargin-Allsopp became the first African American woman admitted to Emory University’s medical school.
“I feel that I’ve done the best I can do with the gifts and talents that I’ve been given,” she said. “That’s what we all should do.”
Other winners include:
● ● Karen D. Dodge of the Federal Trade Commission and Margaret Moeser of the Justice Department, who won the Homeland Security and Law Enforcement Medal. They led civil and criminal investigations that forced Western Union to admit it allowed con artists to use its service to collect payments related to scams. The company forfeited $586 million to reimburse victims.
● Andrew M. Herscowitz and the Power Africa Team of the U.S. Agency for International Development, who will receive the National Security and International Affairs Medal. They brought together the private sector, financial institutions, 12 federal agencies and foreign governments to provide electricity to more than 50 million people in sub-Saharan Africa.
● Marcella Jacobs and the Digital Service team of the Department of Veterans Affairs, who will be given the Management Excellence Medal for streamlining online processes for veterans to simplify applying for and receiving benefits.
● Parimal Kopardekar and a team at NASA’s Ames Research Center, who designed a traffic management system for drones, including rules and technologies that will allow commercial drones to safely deliver packages, monitor traffic and aid search-and-rescue operations.
An eighth award, the fourth annual Service to America Medals People’s Choice Award, chosen by the public, was given in July to Alison Smith of the Naval Surface Warfare Center. Smith pioneered the use of nanomaterials to mark sensitive military equipment with a “fingerprint” to guard against the use of counterfeit products.