Oklahoma City-County Surge Staff Help High-Risk Communities During COVID-19

Hundreds of thousands of Americans have died from COVID-19. It’s a sobering statistic that reveals the many challenges that have occurred over the last year since the pandemic began. For a team of epidemiologists at the Oklahoma City-County Health Department, the work of tracking and tracing confirmed positive cases and subsequent possible exposures became too big for their small team, said Eddie Withers, MPH, epidemiologist, who leads the team of investigators within the health department.

Withers said the CDC Foundation’s COVID-19 Corps staff came at a critical time for their health department.

“If we didn’t have this additional staff come to us, I don’t know what we would have done,” said Withers. “Before we knew COVID-19 would become a pandemic, we only had five people doing the work. We were drowning. We were all working 12- to 15-hour days. Once the staff from the CDC Foundation COVID-19 Corps were hired, it allowed us, as agency epidemiologists, to pay attention to some of the areas we hadn’t been able to since our work with COVID-19 began.”

Kelly Nyugen, epidemiologist with the CDC Foundation COVID-19 Corps

Eddie Withers, MPH, lead epidemiologist with the Oklahoma City-County Health Department

The surge staff for health department jurisdictions around the country was made possible by a $15 million donation from TikTok to the CDC Foundation. In the months since, these staff members have taken a collaborative approach to their work with each member focusing on several industries that are considered high-risk for the spread of COVID-19. This spirit of collaboration has been key, according to Barbara Altidort, an epidemiologist with the CDC Foundation COVID-19 Corps, who coordinates with county jails and transitional housing facilities.

“What I’ve learned is sometimes we don’t have enough data to understand how COVID-19 is being spread. But the main thing is collaboration—epidemiologists and contact tracers. We can all get together to stop the outbreak,” said Altidort. “Working together does in fact combat COVID-19.”

This work includes collecting and analyzing data and implementing control measures to help disrupt transmissions. It’s a continuation of the work that began Altidort’s career in public health, which started over 1,000 miles from Oklahoma in the state of Florida. There, she worked as a regional epidemiologist serving several counties and assisting nurses with their workload and investigations.

“Joining the CDC Foundation COVID-19 Corps means being mission driven and allows me to fulfill the purpose of being an epidemiologist,” said Altidort. “Personally, I feel like I’m actively finding my purpose and wanting to help people. Getting this opportunity feels like I’m expanding my skill set and learning from other CDC Foundation staff and the Oklahoma City-County Health Department.”

Altidort’s sentiments on collaboration are shared by her colleague, Michelle McKinney, who works at the health department as a contact tracer with the CDC Foundation COVID-19 Corps.

“I recently graduated from college where I did a lot of group projects but didn’t know how much teamwork would factor into my day-to-day life,” said McKinney, who was in her last semester of college when the pandemic began. “I’ve had really wonderful experiences working on teams here and seeing how impactful everyone’s different backgrounds are when we work together.”

Barbara Altidort, epidemiologist with the CDC Foundation COVID-19 Corps

Michelle McKinney, contact tracer with the CDC Foundation COVID-19 Corps

Eddie Withers, lead epidemiologist with the Oklahoma City-County Health Department

Kelly Nguyen, epidemiologist with the CDC Foundation COVID-19 Corps

Despite the challenges, McKinney said there have been a few bright spots. One case she worked on involved a family where the husband tested positive for COVID-19 and had to go to the hospital. Later, his wife also tested positive. McKinney followed up with the family over a period of nearly three weeks. One day she received a call from them after they had recovered and made it out of the required isolation period. Moments like these, she said, are what inspires her every day.

“That call for me really embodied the ups and downs of this,” said McKinney. “A lot of people are hit with this and it changes their lives immensely. It’s very scary for them but to hear that they had recovered was one of my happiest moments of doing this job. It was great to hear their voices, and I saved the voicemail for a few days.”

The main thing is collaboration—epidemiologists and contact tracers. We can all get together to stop the outbreak. Working together does in fact combat COVID-19.

McKinney’s colleague, Kelly Nyugen, an epidemiologist with the CDC Foundation COVID-19 Corps, was also in her final semester of school when the pandemic began. Nguyen, who earned her graduate degree in public health last year, reflected on how her classroom assignments suddenly became real life.

“I had studied about infectious disease and events like this in my coursework, and then, all of a sudden we’re living in the middle of one,” said Nguyen. “I knew I wanted to help out with the response however I could.”

In her daily work, Nguyen fields calls related to COVID-19 outbreaks at homeless shelters, transitional housing, long-term care facilities and colleges and universities. For Nguyen, who is Vietnamese, the pandemic has also touched her personally. She said growing up, there were barriers to adequate healthcare for her grandparents, and parents, due to language. These same challenges hit close to home when Nguyen’s mother contracted COVID-19 last year.

“It took a week of me nagging for her to finally get tested, and it wasn’t until the healthcare provider told her she tested positive that she believed it was real,” said Nguyen. “It was eye opening for me—I’ve been a part of this response and working with people who have COVID-19 for so long and to experience a family member have reluctance was a frustrating experience. Getting tested can be an intimidating process if you’re a person of color or older, especially if there’s a language barrier.”

Nguyen’s mother has since recovered. Yet it is these personal experiences that informs the team at the Oklahoma City-County Health Department on how important it is to work across industries and communities in an effort to educate their population about ways to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Lead epidemiologist Eddie Withers summed up the sense of mission and purpose he and his colleagues feel. “What brings me to work each day is the desire to help people and the camaraderie among our staff and the people who are helping us to come together and achieve this one goal.”

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