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Alumni stories from the front line of COVID-19

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We reached out to alumni to get an insider’s view of what it is like to work in a health department during a current public health crisis. We are grateful to the following alumni who took time from their hectic schedules and told us about their unique COVID-19 experiences. 

 

Brittany Saltsman Bell, MPH,  2014

Brittany Saltsman Bell, MPH, CPH, Senior Epidemiologist and Clinical Public Information Officer, Bullitt County Health Department, Shepherdsville, KY, is an infectious disease epidemiologist.

Brittany’s role in the agency's COVID-19 response has changed over the course of the event. At the start, she was coordinating testing requests and case managing all cases and their contacts. However, as the scope of the outbreak expanded, her responsibilities shifted. Now, she serves as the agency's subject matter expert and directs case managers as needed. She acts as the go-between for patients, case managers, medical providers, employers, and many others. She also works closely with the leadership team to ensure the community and stakeholders are aware of the current situation by providing timely, accurate data on the outbreak.

“I never could have imagined responding to a pandemic of this scale. These are things we read about in history books, not something we can even fathom happening in today's world. My MPH did open my eyes to how our modern world has set the stage for a pandemic of this scale; I just never imagined leading a response!”

She continues, “The one word I would use to describe my experience this far is exhausting. I really enjoy being a resource for the community and being able to provide scientifically sound and actionable information to keep them safe, but I have faced many challenges over the past few weeks. A major struggle is the changing guidance that comes along with an emerging pathogen; guidance changes quickly or we encounter situations that have no clear answers. I strive to provide the best possible information to my patients and their families but sometimes this is very difficult to do.”

However, choosing to study public health was not a clear path in the beginning. While enrolled in the MPH program, she learned about historical pandemics and their impact on societies, which sparked her interest in epidemiology. She realized she enjoyed learning about difficult, complex diseases and breaking that information down for the public to understand. She said, “I have always felt passionate about educating and empowering my community to make the best possible decision and my role in public health has let me do that.”

Under normal conditions, Brittany’s job largely consists of investigating and reporting cases of the more than 100 reportable conditions in Kentucky. This usually entails consulting with physicians and following up with patients to identify the source of exposure and any additional interventions that can be implemented to reduce spread to their family, workplace and/or community. She is also the lead data analyst and works closely on grant applications and reports as well as quality improvement projects. She said, “Public health workers wear many hats and I'm certainly no exception to that!”

Taylor Ingram, MPH, 2013Taylor Ingram, MPH

Taylor Ingram, Manager, Policy and Innovation, Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness, normally supervises a team of policy and advocacy staff that promotes equitable policies and practices for Louisville, which helps ensure all residents have a fair and just opportunity to be healthy and reach their full human potential. Her work usually entails policy research and analysis to provide strategic guidance on legislative activities at the local and state levels. Additionally, she provides leadership for our Health Impact Assessments program to ensure health considerations are incorporated into decision-making across sectors and policy areas.

However, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, her job responsibilities have changed. Her day-to-day responsibilities have been suspended and her schedule has been altered to prioritize COVID-19 response activities. She now serves as the Deputy Director of the Health/Medical Branch of Louisville’s Incident Management Team (IMT).

“As the Deputy, I support our Medical Director in providing public health recommendations and medical guidance to inform the IMT’s strategy and actions to achieve response objectives. I also coordinate with our Medical Research Task Force that investigates emerging questions,” Taylor explained.

When asked what it’s like to be working in public health at this time, she said she chose a career in public health because she enjoys working through complex problems–understanding the ins and outs of a situation, sorting through the details to find the most salient points, and developing practical solutions. Public health’s combination of inquiry and actionable strategies with the goal of creating optimal conditions for health made a career in public health the ideal fit for her.

“Public health practice has constantly evolved in response to emerging needs and ideas. It’s exciting to be part of a field that is so uniquely poised to collaborate with the community and with other sectors to develop opportunities for positive change. I feel the COVID-19 pandemic is just the latest iteration of public health, and it demonstrates the need for our work now more than ever.”

Matt Rhodes, MPH, 2015 Matt Rhodes, MPH

SPHIS alumnus, Matt Rhodes, MPH, Director of Operations, Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness, is currently serving in Unified Command and managing the incident response for Louisville Metro along with Dr. Sara Moyer, Louisville Fire Department, Louisville Emergency Management, Louisville Police, and Emergency Medical Services.

Matt describes the situation for us: “It is unprecedented. I have said many times that we must suspend our normal mental models and determine novel ways to solve challenges. The limited supply chains created challenges securing personal protective equipment and other tools necessary to support operations. Limited testing supplies and lab capacity created initial challenges to understand disease prevalence within the community. Having a global pandemic, which strains human resources, coupled with constricting flow of goods and services continues to create daily challenges.”

When asked what it’s like working in public health at this time, he said, “The COVID-19 pandemic is the challenge of our lifetime and public health practitioners are serving in the lead decision role(s) all across the globe. Although no one wants to be immersed in a pandemic response, as public health practitioners, this is a reality that we’ve been warning about for years. It’s our time to perform and assist the world in responding to, planning supportive steps for, and eventually recovering from the global pandemic.

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