Long-term commitment to fighting the virus

Knox reached out to some of our graduates who are working in the healthcare industry for their perspectives on the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sam Jarvis ’09 works in public health/emergency preparednessas a community health manager.

I live in Iowa City and work at Johnson County Public Health (the county Health Department).

Tell us about your work, your duties and responsibilities, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
I’m the community health manager and oversee several programs which include tobacco cessation and prevention, integrated testing (for Hepatitis C and HIV), communicable disease prevention (which includes tuberculosis), emergency preparedness, employee wellness, and the department’s community health needs assessment. My role is primarily administrative. Prior to my current role, I was the department’s emergency preparedness planner.

Has the pandemic changed your role at work, and if so, how?
Yes, and dramatically. The community health division has our communicable disease and emergency preparedness program, so we’re directly engaged in the response. As a health department, our director is the incident commander for the county response which involves coordinating with several dozen agencies. Our emergency management agency has opened their emergency operations center seven days a week and is coordinating a lot of other operations and logistics as well. It’s a key player in this.

My ad hoc emergency response role is liaison officer, and was operations section chief until we expanded. Much of our work in the division is health education and outreach. With social (physical) distancing mitigation measures in place and county offices closed to the public, that has altered. Many of my coworkers have shifted their duties to assist with the response either to perform disease investigations, collaborate on public information projects, or a variety of other tasks to support the response. Government agencies work a 40-hour week Monday through Friday typically, but since our first case, there’s a good amount of us directly engaged, putting in a bit more hours and working various shifts, or adjusted schedules, and through weekends. It’s been necessary to stay on top of the workload and the changes either in disaster declarations or state or federal guidance.  

We have scheduled meetings internally and externally that are solely dedicated to the response and much of what goes on in those meetings throughout the day drives our schedules. It’s always difficult to describe in detail what “coordination” is, but keeping everyone up-to-date and on the same page when making decisions takes time.

More broadly, how is the pandemic affecting what you see at work on a regular basis, e.g., employee workloads, the number of patients seeking help?
We make contact with every positive case and conduct the investigation and contact tracing. Since there’s evidence of community transmission in Iowa (and everywhere in the United States) we know there are lot of ill persons who don’t get tested, but those that do and, especially as we see more testing options become available, we see more cases, and that directly impacts our workload. When mass testing at a facility due to an outbreak occurs and those persons are residents of our jurisdiction, that impacts our workload, but that’s also why we’ve onboarded other internal staff to assist.

My day usually consisted of meeting with other programmatic staff and community partners in the various programs I mentioned before and project planning, but now it is entirely devoted to the COVID-19 response. While we’re managing the issues that arise during the week we also plan for next steps, but it’s a bit difficult to predict when something like this hasn’t happened before.

Public health primarily plays the role of strategist or “connector and convener,” so while we don’t directly treat patients we coordinate with many agencies that do direct services.

What is a fact and/or piece of advice you can offer to people to help them understand what is happening and how they should respond to maintain their health as well as they can?
Be patient. Most understand the importance of distancing, hand hygiene, and cough etiquette, but we’ve got to keep that up. Our efforts to fight this need to be thought of as long-term commitments and that becomes more difficult every day many of us are at home. Physical distancing and stay-at-home orders have had a dramatic impact on everyone, but especially teachers, caregivers, and families without daycare, so keep them in mind too.  Humans are social and to tell everyone to stay physically apart is hard so reach out to friends and family and often. COVID-19 is a part of our lives now and its going to be difficult to adjust to, but we’re all in this together.

Is there any way in which your Knox education has helped you adapt to the current moment?
I was biochemistry major so having that background helps tremendously. Public health is a broad interdisciplinary field, but having a strong science foundation is important, at least when dealing with communicable disease.

Another major part of Knox that carries with me as a professional was the experience taking Intro to Gender and Women Studies with Dr. Kelly Shaw. Developing and continuing to develop that perspective has been crucial to being a thoughtful public health and emergency preparedness professional.

What are you looking forward to once life returns to something more closely resembling “normal”?
Going out to dinner with my spouse, Dr. Kate Jarvis ’12–it’s one of our favorite things to do here in Iowa City.

Visiting friends from Knox–I keep in touch with a lot of classmates and guys from the fraternity.

Visiting home in Galesburg and cruising the strip as I did in high school.

People watching too … to sit and relax at an outdoor event and feel the energy would be nice.

Is there anything else you would like to add?
Take time to unplug from the news and social media and take time for yourself. This disruption and shift in daily life is stressful if not traumatic, so go easy on yourself and others. The weather is getting nicer in the Midwest, so I’ve been running here in Iowa City. It’s certainly not the same as going for a run in Galesburg though.

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