(TNS) - Mar. 24—At the start of 2020, Ashlee Nelson's biggest professional responsibility was organizing pet therapy sessions for area schools, and managing a team of people at a pizza parlor in her hometown. By May, she was the head of Grand Forks Public Health's contact tracing team.
Since the novel coronavirus first began to appear in North Dakota almost exactly a year ago, Nelson has earned a master's degree in public health from UND, gone from a health department intern to UND's contact tracing team to the city's lead contact tracer, and, recently, moved to the Grand Forks Police Department, where she coordinates efforts among mental health providers. The pandemic has been a newfound well of stress for health department workers like Nelson, one that's that's also pushed them to quickly take on often-unfamiliar responsibilities.
"It was a crash course," Nelson told the Grand Forks Herald. "We were told, 'here are the paper forms, they have the information you need to get. Here are the phone numbers of the people you need to call right now.'"
Other health department employees moved from focuses on tobacco or tuberculosis to COVID. The department's — and county's — foremost coronavirus data analyst was initially hired to administer its opioid response.
For Haley Bruhn and Marcus Lee, the move to an all-COVID, all-the-time work schedule wasn't as jarring. Bruhn is the head of Grand Forks Public Health's disease prevention team and its immunization program, which translated readily into contact tracing and, later, leading the city and Altru Health System's combined vaccination program.
"I stayed kind of in my lane," Bruhn said.
And Lee has been preparing for a pandemic for years. He's the local health department's regional emergency preparedness response coordinator, which means his job entailed checking, double-checking and revising plans for disasters ranging from a sweeping fire to a planeload of anthrax being dumped across the Grand Cities. He's organized nearly all of the massive COVID-19 tests at the Alerus Center and UND, and has been a liaison between the local health department and the North Dakota Department of Health, a National Guard detachment and other institutions.
Still, Lee said, North Dakota and Grand Forks County's pandemic plan was modeled after the 1918 flu pandemic, which meant changing the plan on the fly to account for COVID specifically.
"We never really thought about social distancing and all that sort of fun stuff and having to get vaccine on an allocation," he said. "It's my job, but it's the exciting side of the job versus reviewing plans and updating contacts and doing all that other kind of office-y things. It takes your job and puts it on steroids, more or less. What somebody had said one time is it's the Super Bowl of your job."
That "Super Bowl" of responsibility has been taxing on others, too. Lee's 3-year-old daughter noticed he's been away from home more often during the pandemic, for example.
"You get used to what it is and your life adjusts to it," he said.
Bruhn and Nelson described a deteriorated barrier between their work and home lives, plus persistent stress and all-hours-of-the-night calls — all punctuated by emotionally intense work and occasional verbal abuse from the public at large.
Health department workers are responsible for calling the close contacts of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 to see where they've been, who else they've been with, and so on in an effort to track the virus' spread through the area. More often than not, residents were amenable to sharing that sort of information. Yet many Grand Forks contact tracers have a story about being yelled at, angrily hung up on or cried to.
"We had to talk to widows or grieving children of parents who had passed, I would say, on a weekly basis," Nelson said. "It really humanizes the situation ... but it also takes a toll because we were the ones who were there and, in the beginning, sometimes we might have been only the second person they were talking to after the doctor who had to give them the news."
And Bruhn, a registered nurse for 13 years, said she was unprepared for pushback from people who didn't want help. The mitigation plans the health department promoted for months — wearing a mask, social distancing and so on — felt simple and noncontroversial to her and other health department workers.
"And then, when it came time to ask people to do it, there was a lot of pushback and masking became quickly very politicized and you were either pro mask or pro freedom," she said. "And that wasn't really what the intention was."
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