OLMSTED COUNTY, Minn. - National Public Health Week is April 5th-11th, and KIMT News 3 is highlighting some Olmsted County Public Health workers who play important roles in the community.
Public health agencies work year-round every year to keep our communities safe and healthy. But public health is sometimes invisble work, with many hands working behind the scenes. Over the past year during the pandemic, the importance of public health has been brought to light.
"I'm just excited post-pandemic for this new world for public health," says epidemiologist Meaghan Sherden. During the pandemic, a key part of her job is collecting, recording, sharing, and analyzing COVID-19 data. Because of all the planning and training OCPH does for major health threats, she feels the transition into COVID response has been pretty seamless. Sherden is excited the pandemic has created an awareness of just how prevalent public health work is in our communities. She's even been speaking with college students interested in a career in the field because they learned about it over the course of the last year.
While you may recognize public health's role in testing for, vaccinating against, and collecting information on the Coronavirus, emergency preparedness and response is just one facet of the job. Public health has a hand in everything from food insecurity, to walkability in our cities, to environmental hazards, and more. "It will be really interesting to see as we move through this, the more interest, the more understanding, and I think it just benefits our community that people know what public health is and what we're here to help with," says Sherden.
We have all learned how to work differently, interact differently, and go to school differently during the pandemic, just to name some examples. For Olmsted County Public Health workers, some of their job roles have completely changed during the pandemic.
"It was a quick pivot, that's for sure," chuckles Christa Seymour. Pre-pandemic, she worked with area schools as a public health nurse. With less than 24 hours noticed, she learned she'd be trained as a contract tracing investigator. Her team interviews people who have tested positive for the virus, finds out where they've been and who they've been around, and provide any resources they may need for food or housing while they quarantine. Seymour hopes when the pandemic is behind us, people will still recognize that public health is here to keep the community healthy and safe. "To be that face that the students recognize and know. 'I remember my public health nurse, she came in and taught us about whatever it may be... I need help. I want to reach out and connect and see if she can help me with a situation i'm currently in,'" she explains.
Community health specialist Abby Tricker has also shifted to a new role. She's a part OCPH's health promotions team, but has mainly been working on the covid information line during the pandemic. Answering calls and questions was at times stressful early on in the pandemic, because information was changing often. Sometimes callers needed answers, and sometimes they just needed to feel heard by someone. Tricker is proud of the work she and fellow public health employees have done over the last year. "I feel even more proud of the work we're doing throughout this response just knowing that we saved lives and that we're doing is making an impact and it's being recognized," she says.
Collaboration has also been key to successfully responding to COVID-19 in Olmsted County. "One important thing I've learned is that we can't do it on our own," says Tricker. The call line was first run by solely public health employees, but they quickly became overwhelmed.
That's when the Rochester Public Library and other community partners came in, to help take some of the burden off of OCPH. The library has always been involved in the city's emergency operations planning. In 2020, that plan had to go into effect.
"People had questions. Lots of questions. And who can they trust the most to answer those questions? Your local librarian. It gave meaningful work for people to do at home and some of us were medically vulnerable and being able to work frontline really wasnt an option. Instead, we're working frontline on the phones," explains Kimberly Edson. She's head of reader services at the Rochester Public Library, but has been managing the COVID information line during the pandemic. Librarians are skilled at scouring the web and other resources for information, making them a great option to help with the call intake.
Since the call line's inception, library workers have handled roughly 6,500 calls. County workers have managed around 3,100. The call line has helped thousands of individuals get important information.
Though the workers we spoke to hope the next health crisis our community may face is not in the near future, they feel they've learned invaluable lessons over the last year that will help them respond to future emergencies.
As we move closer to a new normal, public health will help with pandemic recovery and addressing issues like mental health and delayed care. Once the threat of COVID-19 is behind us, these workers hope Olmsted County citizens remember public health is a resource to keep them healthy and safe, even when we're not fighting a global pandemic.