After graduating from Northeastern State University at the end of 2018, I was drawn to the field of public health because I love science and I love my community. Working in public health combines those two passions and allows me to serve the community I. Love. Tulsa.
I became an epidemiologist at the Tulsa Health Department (THD) at the beginning of 2019. At the time, I couldn’t have imagined I would find myself in such a vital role for our community during a historic pandemic. I had one year of public health experience to prepare me for what was to come.
On January 7, 2020, my team and I were in a routine meeting with other epidemiologists from the Oklahoma State Department of Health (OSDH) and the Oklahoma City-County Health Department (OCCHD) when the former state epidemiologist provided an update regarding a small cluster of cases reported in Wuhan, China that had a respiratory illness with an unknown etiology. The update was provided so our agencies were “aware” of the situation. It was only three months after that meeting that a global pandemic was declared for a novel coronavirus: COVID-19.
THD’s epidemiology team began monitoring returning travelers from Wuhan, China at the beginning of February 2020.
This was my first experience with traveler monitoring, but others on my team had previous experience from Ebola. Our team would be notified by OSDH about the travelers and then we would contact them, often before they landed in Tulsa. We met them at their residence and after screening them for signs of illness, we provided their quarantine recommendations. We continued to check-in with the returning travelers to assess their temperature and any presence of symptoms twice daily for fourteen days after arriving back in the United States.
When the first case of the novel coronavirus was confirmed in the United States, something that seemed like a faraway threat all of the sudden became the top concern for local health departments across the country. In addition to traveler monitoring, the THD epidemiology team began working persons under investigation (PUI) cases. PUIs in this situation were individuals who had recently traveled to countries affected by outbreaks of the novel coronavirus and developed respiratory symptoms after returning to the United States.
At the end of February 2020, I was assigned a PUI case of an individual who had recently traveled to Italy, and developed respiratory symptoms after his return. He qualified for COVID-19 testing, so samples were collected and sent off to the CDC. I will never forget the day the results for those samples came back. On March 6, 2020, the THD epidemiology team, along with leadership, were all gathered in the same room and the announcement was made that the results were back for my PUI case and that they were positive.
All the anxiousness and stress of the past few months had been leading up to that moment. The threat was here — in our community. The thing all of us in that room were dreading had happened.
More positive cases followed the first, and my team and I were working into the night and on weekends in order to get in contact as quickly as possible with all the cases that were coming in. The case count quickly outgrew the capacity of just the epidemiology team, so we expanded our team. Even with additional staff, we still had to work seven long days a week to keep up.
For many months, my team and I spent more time in our offices and with each other than we did at home with our own families. We were all working hard to slow the spread of this disease. It took a huge toll, physically and mentally, on each of us. It was exhausting to think and talk about nothing but COVID-19 24/7.
In addition to long, seemingly never-ending days, the work we were doing was difficult.
COVID-19 case investigations are more thorough and tedious than any of the other common diseases epidemiologists investigate. Each case we investigated at the beginning were people who were experiencing something new that had a lot of uncertainties with constantly changing information. They were often scared and uncertain about what they were going through, and I was very empathetic to that. I think we all were, as we had these same fears and worries in our own lives.
It was impossible not to get emotional while working some of the cases, especially with how stretched thin we were. Prior to working cases of individuals with COVID-19, I had not experienced a case passing away. Even though I never met any of my cases face to face, it was heartbreaking when someone would lose their battle with COVID-19. I mourned the ones who didn’t make it, often after fighting for weeks. My team and I can remember many of the names of our initial cases, and especially the ones who passed away.
One of the biggest challenges has been combating the negative discourse regarding the recommended COVID-19 precautions. There has been a lot of negativity aimed at the health department and toward those who are just wanting to keep our community safe (check out our video “THD Reads Mean Tweets” on THD’s Facebook page).
It has been difficult to empathize with people who are against taking measures to protect their families, their neighbors and themselves. As an epidemiologist, our goal is to slow and hopefully stop the spread of disease. These concepts of isolation, quarantine, social distancing, use of personal protective equipment, hand washing, etc. are all measures that have been recommended long before COVID-19 to those who have tested positive for an infectious disease.
To me, it is just common sense. However, it can be all too easy sometimes to only focus on those who oppose the recommendations. The majority of the cases I have worked with have been more than willing to comply with the isolation and quarantine measures and just want to do what they can to protect their families and others.
When the surge hit at the end of October and COVID-19 cases skyrocketed, the situation felt so out of control. We were quickly overwhelmed by cases. The winter was a very challenging time but hope emerged in the form of a two-dose series of messenger RNA (mRNA).
When the first COVID-19 vaccine was approved for use I finally saw a faint glimmer of light at the end of the metaphorical tunnel of the pandemic. A safe and incredibly effective vaccine was available to go into people’s arms less than a year after the pandemic was declared. I got my vaccine as soon as it was made available to me and it was such a sense of relief when I was fully vaccinated. I was safe and able to keep my family safe.
I have the opportunity to work at our vaccine clinic one to two days a week, and I absolutely love it. With every vaccine that I see go into someone’s arm, that light at the end of the tunnel grows wider and wider as we get closer to the end. I know this sounds dramatic, but I feel a lot of emotions at the clinic. My heart swells knowing another person has been protected from the horrible disease that I have seen destroy people’s lives over the past year. I also feel sad for those who didn’t make it or for those that have long lasting impacts from the illness who caught COVID-19 before the vaccine was an option for them. I enjoy talking to people about what their plans are after getting fully vaccinated and who they plan to see.
After everything I was witnessed in the past year, I encourage everyone to get the vaccine. It is safe and extremely effective in preventing COVID-19. If you are hesitant, know that it is perfectly normal to feel a little nervous, but your action is going to protect yourself, your family, and those around you everywhere you go. We all have to do our part! Stopping the spread of COVID-19 will take all of us.
You can sign-up today to get your COVID-19 vaccine at vaccinate.oklahoma.gov.