Before the COVID-19 pandemic began, I was a Public Health Institute/CDC Global Health fellow in CDC’s Central America office located in Guatemala City, Guatemala. I developed communication strategies that showcase the important work of my colleagues in the region. I also managed disease surveillance projects in Honduras and the Dominican Republic and helped with research on diseases such as rabies and Rickettsia felis, a disease caused by bacteria carried by fleas.
But when the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the globe, many staff members had to come back to the United States. I relocated to Atlanta in June 2020 with only one bag, unsure of what the next months would bring professionally and personally.
Joining the Kansas COVID-19 response from Atlanta
Everybody at CDC was supporting the COVID-19 response in one way or another. At the height of the first wave of the pandemic, I was reassigned to work with CDC’s Global Migration Task Force. I supported CDC’s COVID-19 response in southwest Kansas from Atlanta, because pandemic-related travel restrictions prevented staff from traveling to the region.
Kansas has a large meat-processing industry. It ranked third in the United States in total red meat production in 2019, according to the Kansas Livestock Association. This industry was hit hard with COVID-19 infections in the spring of 2020. The large, factory-scale slaughterhouses became hot spots for COVID-19 transmission.
For the next five months, my work centered around a small community of meat-processing employees. Most of these essential workers were immigrants or refugees from Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Africa . To help CDC create effective communications tools for this specific group of people, my colleagues and I were asked to find out what they knew about COVID-19 and what they thought this new virus might do to a person.
“To help CDC create effective communications tools for this specific group of people, my colleagues and I were asked to find out what they knew about COVID-19 and what they thought this new virus might do to a person.”
It was not an easy task. We did not have CDC staff on the ground in Kansas to talk to workers, so we got creative. First, we looked at what was being discussed on Facebook and other social media. We searched for local churches on the internet. We reached out to refugee resettlement organizations. We contacted different groups to better understand what people in meatpacking plants were dealing with. Then we interviewed community leaders and employees.
These interviews provided invaluable insight into what was troubling the workers in this part of Kansas. Community leaders told us how misconceptions about asymptomatic or mild disease persisted, that the difference between isolation and quarantine was unclear, and that people were unsure about what to do while waiting for COVID-19 test results.
Our research suggested that structural supports were needed to make sure essential workers in the meatpacking industry could protect themselves at home, in the community, and in the plants. These included local government mask mandates and making masks available on site. Protecting workers by installing dividers in the plant and closing parts of the plant where people would usually gather were other ways to help them be safer. We also learned about using diverse channels to share COVID-19 information in plain language and in the languages that the workers spoke. These steps could help improve trust between public health and multicultural communities.
COVID-19 on a personal level
While I was experiencing a lot of growth in my career supporting the response in Kansas, I was also dealing with COVID-19 on a personal level. This was happening at the same time as COVID-19 hit New York, where I grew up. One of the many New Yorkers who got sick was my uncle. He was diagnosed with COVID-19 and hospitalized shortly afterwards. Days later, my mother received the dreaded call from the hospital informing her that her brother had died. She was beside herself with grief. Then a few minutes later, the hospital called back and said they had made a mistake, and he was still alive. My mother was beyond upset and didn’t understand how such an error could be made.
A few days later, the hospital called again, telling my mother that my uncle had died. This time, it was true, but she did not believe them. My mother had lost her faith in the health system. While she was mourning the loss of her brother, I used a lot of lessons learned from my research with the people in Kansas to help her cope. I explained to my mother how everyone was working very hard, trying to do their best, but that healthcare systems aren’t perfect.
When COVID-19 vaccines were finally available, my mom’s mistrust was big. My work with folks in Kansas instilled patience, understanding, and empathy, which I used to address her doubts about COVID-19, and especially about the vaccines. I’ve learned the importance of taking a step back, listening to the stories that have profoundly affected people, and then finding a way to communicate the important public health messages we need to convey, especially to those closest to us.
“I’ve learned the importance of taking a step back, listening to the stories that have profoundly affected people, and then finding a way to communicate the important public health messages we need to convey, especially to those closest to us.”
COVID-19 career growth
In November 2020, I became an information manager with the CDC task force that coordinates the agency’s response outside the United States. For the next two months, I managed and distributed information to CDC country offices around the globe. This included news stories about CDC and the COVID-19 pandemic and updates on CDC research such as surveillance, lab and diagnostics, and vaccine preparedness.
I learned how important it was to provide leaders and subject matter experts with the most up-to-date information to help their teams plan the next steps to end this pandemic. I was also able to network and make meaningful connections with CDC staff while giving me the chance to show them my skills and work ethic.
Being part of CDC during the biggest pandemic in more than a century was very rewarding. I witnessed how public health experts help people during a health emergency. I will carry this experience with me throughout my career.
“Being part of CDC during the biggest pandemic in more than a century was very rewarding. I witnessed how public health experts help people during a health emergency. I will carry this experience with me throughout my career.”
One of the most important things I learned was how much work still needs to be done to meet the needs of diverse communities. Even when resources are provided, there is no guarantee that people will understand and use them if their identity and cultural norms are not considered. My family’s experience with COVID-19 provided important insight for me too. It taught me how public health agencies need to continue to learn to fully engage or provide support to racial and ethnic minority groups impacted by COVID-19.
I became a full-time CDC employee in February 2021. I’m proud of the work I’ve done as a fellow and what I’m doing now as a public health advisor with CDC’s Travel Restriction and Intervention Activity team. I think of my uncle often and honor his memory with the work I do. I feel more empowered than ever to work in service of communities. There is a place for me in public health and for anyone who wants to make a positive contribution to the communities they belong to.