With all the unknowns and changes around COVID-19, we wanted to check-in with some of our alumni to see how life has changed for them.

Brittany Grogan, class of 2014, is a data analysist with Public Health Madison and Dane County. She works in include data management, quality improvement, data analysis, data interpretation, and data presentation and visualization, supporting her entire department based on where her skills are needed.

Janice Valenzuela, class of 2015, works at the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) as the Minority Health Strategic Outreach Coordinator. Janice manages the Minority Health Program grants, assists with coordinating the Minority Health Advisory Committee, and provides consultation and technical assistance to both internal and external partners around minority health issues, social determinants of health, applying a health equity lens and addressing health disparities.

How has your role changed to handle the COVID pandemic?

Brittany Grogan: My general role as a data analyst serving all areas of our health department hasn’t changed, since my role has been to provide data support where it is most needed. However, since March 5, 100% of my time has been focused on COVID-19 response. I also had some hours dedicated to COVID response prior to March 5, but not full-time.

Brittany Grogan
Brittany Grogan

In the beginning, before we had a lot of data to analyze, I helped with both communications and planning. Once we were getting more cases and tests and had a lot more data to look at, a COVID-19 data team was formed. It consists of me, two other analysts/epidemiologists, and a team lead. Our infectious disease epidemiologist who normally analyzes acute and communicable disease data was assigned to oversee a lot of the disease control operations, so I had to learn all the ins and outs of a data system that was brand new to me. The data system is the Wisconsin Electronic Disease Surveillance System, which all the data for COVID-19 cases and tests gets entered into in Wisconsin (along with data for other diseases). The data is messy, so we’ve had a lot of fun coding challenges in SAS to solve to get the results we need!

Janice Valenzuela: My role didn’t change per se, but I took on additional responsibilities. When things began to really pick up in relation to the response to COVID-19 in mid-March, our program was right in the middle of getting things ready to open our annual RFA for our grant funding opportunities. That, predictably, was delayed a little bit, but thankfully we have been able to open our RFA and hopefully will be funding some great community-based projects starting this summer.

Janice Valenzuela
Janice Valenzuela

We have continued to engage our Minority Health Advisory Committee throughout this time and I am currently working on a survey for the group to provide input on the pandemic from the perspective of the communities they represent.

In mid-March there was a call for staff to volunteer to help with different aspects of the response and I joined the contact tracing efforts which then also merged with work related to language access  including translation of materials and coordinating a team of bilingual staff to help with translations; as well as developing recommendations for improving language access of DHS web content.

How has your department changed to handle COVID and what successes have you had or seen?

Grogan: Our work has completely shifted. Most people are assigned to work on COVID response full-time, while others are ensuring we can still provide our most basic level of essential services. Most of us started working remotely full-time in late March; working remotely was fairly rare before then. Our department also got Skype so we now hold nearly all meetings virtually. Those of us working on COVID response are working in an Incident Command System structure, so a lot of us are reporting to people who were not previously our supervisors, and working on teams with colleagues we had not worked with directly before. I’m lucky to work on the data team with incredibly intelligent and fun colleagues who I really respect and admire; they have helped ease the high stress of this response, and our team lead even got us all matching COVID-19 Data Team mugs!

Valenzuela: One of the most obvious changes were the activation of the SEOC.

My program sits in the Office of Policy and Practice Alignment in DPH and OPPA set up several response teams. I have been on the Ops & Logistics team (originally the materials review).

Of course what changed for everyone was that we had to find new ways of working remotely, doing everything online, working different schedules, balancing being at home with family. Many had to get new equipment and software quickly in order to work that way – I had been working from home from time to time in the past so I was lucky to have most of what I needed already.

Probably the most palpable change was feeling a bit disconnected from people.

Some work had to be kept pretty much on track, such as grants management, while others took a bit of a back seat for a few weeks until there was a little more space to regroup (ie deBeaumont).

Grogan: It has been amazing to see my colleagues adapt so rapidly to this completely new world. Everyone is very passionate about making sure we do what’s best for our patients and our community. I really like our Liaisons team which has around 15 people assigned to communicate and coordinate with various sectors in our community, such as businesses, housing, food security, parks, schools, and more. This teamwork has led to lots of great results, such as ensuring that all kids have access to food while schools are shut down, and that people experiencing homelessness have a place to rest and recover while awaiting test results or recovering from COVID-19. Our disease control team made up of public health nurses and other staff working on case investigation, contact tracing, and technical support is also very impressive. They take such great care in the work they do and are always advocating on their clients’ behalf. They’ve also been working incredibly long hours with nights and weekends to ensure that people who test positive receive timely follow-up, isolation guidance, and contact elicitation.

Valenzuela: The simple fact that we can continue to do our jobs, at a reasonable level,  under these circumstances is a success.

One of the things I did right away was reach out to all of our grantees to check in and to offer any assistance in adjusting their projects under COVID-19. They didn’t need my help though – they are Pros in having to pivot. We have been able to continue our grant funding to existing grantees and for a few of them we were even able to get some additional funding out the door.

I’m also happy that we were able to have our RFA open, albeit it a little late, and that we can get that funding out to folks this year.  

We have also had to pivot with how we are engaging members of our advisory committee, but I think finding ways to stay connected with them and to engage them in the response is a success. More generally, I have gotten the sense, in the last month or so, of greater collaboration – perhaps out of sheer necessity. I’m starting to collaborate more even with colleagues within OPPA that I had simply not thought to tap into in the past.

How prepared did you feel to jump into a new role or shift quickly? With “reopening” on the horizon, how do you see your work and/or department adjusting?

Grogan: I wasn’t prepared to drop everything I had been working on to indefinitely work on COVID response full time, but I’m sure no one was! It wasn’t difficult to shift quickly though, since I’ve supported all kinds of data work throughout and outside of the department in my two years here.

Valenzuela: On one level, not at all – never having been part of a pandemic response before, and also losing my guides and mentors with respect to regular program activities. On another level, pivoting is part of the work in public health, with or without a global pandemic. Coming from an ER background, I have long been comfortable with having to pivot, though in that setting it was more directly tied to saving a life whereas here it often feels like you are adapting to other forces (i.e. political, funding, etc.).

Grogan: We’ve already been making plans on how we can continue our normal services and get people working on things other than COVID. I see myself, however, working on COVID data for quite some time. The work is constantly shifting: it started with just trying to describe our disease burden and demographics of cases, which expanded to much more detailed analysis of trends, tests, and hospitalizations; now, we are heavily focused on analyzing the metrics and process measures we have put in place that determine when our county can move to the next phase of reopening. In the near future we hope to start being able to analyze other data that may have been impacted by COVID, such as deaths from other causes, immunization rates, and more.

Valenzuela: I don’t actually know; it feels like reopening is just another stage of the same response. There are, of course, the logistics of the work that everyone, not just DPH/DHS has to do – slowly bringing people back into the workplace and all that. But as far as providing guidance and support to our partners, that is what we always do, the details change, but the work is the same.

More specifically, my hope is always that both with the initial response, as now, and moving into a recovery phase later, that we continue to address issues of health and racial equity more and more.