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Public Health Workers Face Intense Pressure And Backlash While Navigating COVID-19

Nola Aigner-Davis-polk-county-public-health.jpg
Natalie Krebs
Nola Aigner-Davis is the public information officer for the Polk County Public Health Department. She says their 42-person team is anticipating COVID-19 vaccine distribution to be challenging.

The work that people in public health do is often not very visible to the general public, but when the COVID-19 pandemic hit last March, many were thrown into the spotlight seemingly overnight.

Wayne County Public Health Department Administrator Shelley Bickel was supposed to be retired by now.

Following a three-decade public health career in neighboring Decatur County, Bickel retired in 2018, only to be convinced by a Wayne County supervisor to spend just one more year running their department part-time.

But last March, just as Bickel was about to hang up her public health hat for good, the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

"And it just kind of hit us with a vengeance, and I felt like I couldn't just quit," she said, "and so here I am working since March 15, seven days a week, non-stop, going crazy."

Shelley Bickel
Shelley Bickel was set to retire from a part-time position at the Wayne County Public Health Department when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Iowa. She says she feels like she can't leave now.

Bickel said this pandemic is like nothing she’s seen in her entire career. On top of working non-stop, she’s also received a lot of push back from the community on COVID-19 restrictions.

"Oh, we've been called every name in the book. And we've been hung up on. We've been threatened," she said.

Bickel isn’t the only public health worker in this position.

Penny Tyynismaa, a nurse with the Tama County Public Health Department, said one parent called so upset about quarantine requirements for school sports teams, he started talking about 1930s Germany.

"And I said, 'Hold on for a second. Are you comparing me — are you comparing public health to Nazi Germany?' And he said, 'Yes, I am,'" she said.

Tyynismaa works closely with Tama County Public Health Director Shannon Zoffka, who says she was barely able to take a few days off to get married last summer.

"I don't think we even realize the amount of stress we're under, the exhaustion," Zoffka said. "I mean, the month of November was so chaotic with the surge. It was insane."

Many public health workers are facing this kind of incredible pressure at the moment.

Jessi Gold is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis. She said not only is the work grueling, many public health workers have been thrust into the spotlight, making them a target for people who are feeling anxious during a very scary and uncertain time.

Tama County Public Health Department
Shannon Zoffka, the director of the Tama County Public Health Department, and Penny Tyynismaa, an RN with the department, say they have been working seven day weeks since March because of COVID-19.

"The public health official is the face of your job security, your livelihood, not existing," she said, "and so it's displaced anger, because you don't understand why that person took it from you."

All this has taken a toll on workers. According to an AP investigation published last month, at least ten state and county public health employees in Iowa have left or been fired from their posts during the pandemic.

At the state level, Iowa Department of Public Health Director Gerd Clabaugh retired last summer, and the department is on its third spokesperson since the start of the pandemic.

Gold said she expects many more workers to leave, once things calm down and they’re no longer doing, what she calls, "stopping the bleed."

"But I do think very much so that when the adrenaline settles and this stops, that you go, 'What am I doing? And what was that? And do I like this? And am I valued?'" she said.

This is what concerned Greene County Public Health Department Director Becky Wolf. She said for months, like many, she and her two public health nurses were working really long hours.

But Wolf said this fall, once they had gotten through the worst of the state’s third COVID-19 spike, she had what she calls her pandemic "come to Jesus moment."

Becky Wolf
Becky Wolf, the director of the Greene County Public Health Department, credits her long-running professional relationship with the department's two nurses with helping her through the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We're not going to be able to last if we don't start taking care of ourselves and try and get a hold of things," she said. "You know, the pandemic is not everything that public health does. You've got to keep your doors open."

Wolf said her team has had to temporarily shelve their overachiever mindset and they now strive to work just eight hours a day, leaving by 5:00 p.m.

Part of the reason she said is to save energy for what will be the huge logistical challenge of distributing the vaccine.

It’s not just small departments facing this challenge.

Nola Aigner-Davis, the public information officer with the Polk County Public Health Department, said its 42-person team is also anticipating that vaccine distribution will be hard.

But she said the team also sees the vaccine as the beginning of an end.

"We know it may take a while, but once you see that little glimmer, light at the end of the tunnel, you're like, ‘Okay, well, we can do this. We can keep doing this,'" she said.

Aigner-Davis said her department has yet to lose any employees to pandemic stress.

Natalie Krebs is IPR's Health Reporter