Rumblings about a novel coronavirus in China started to trickle into the American news cycle in late 2019. Health care leaders around the world, including in the Louisville area, took notice.
“I think all of us thought that it was probably going to be kind of like SARS of the early 2000s, or maybe like Ebola,” said Dr. Sarah Moyer, chief health strategist with the Louisville Metro Public Health and Wellness.
That quickly changed when the virus began to take hold in other countries.
“We saw hospitals being filled across the world, especially at the time in Italy, which really made it hit home that we weren’t going to escape this,” Moyer said. “This was going to be very different than anything we’ve seen in the last 100 years.”
Then it happened: A man in Washington state became the first American diagnosed with COVID-19 on Jan. 20, 2020.
Dr. Eric Yazel, the health officer for Clark County, Ind., wanted to get a jump on the situation, so he sent a text to an old friend who’s a doctor in the Seattle area.
“I was like, ‘You got any words of advice for a rural, random Midwest health officer?’” Yazel said. “I got all caps, ‘SHUT IT DOWN. SHUT IT DOWN NOW.’ I was like, ‘Oh, this escalated quickly.’
Striving For Balance
For more than a year, health care professionals have dedicated themselves to the fight against COVID-19. That daily grind has been stressful.
During normal times, health officers in Southern Indiana rarely need more than a few hours a week to complete their duties. But the pandemic changed that.
The increased workload was particularly difficult for Yazel and Dr. Tom Harris, the health officer for Floyd County, Ind., since both are also full-time emergency medicine doctors.
“You work a 10-hour shift in the ER and usually that’s that day’s activity for me,” Harris said. “On top of that, I’m at the health department for two or three hours before that, so there’s some seriously long days that have been put in, not just by me, but by basically everybody in public health.”
Yazel said the onslaught of COVID-related issues doesn’t stop once the work day ends, no matter how late it gets. That level of responsibility changed his life.
“Even when I’m trying to pull away and get some family time and things, I look down and I’ll have seven or eight text messages with COVID questions or issues,” Yazel said. “I always make the joke that it’s like the little cartoon where the dam has a leak. You stick your finger in it, and five more leaks spring out.”
Although Moyer’s position in Louisville was already her sole full-time job, she wasn’t spared from new hardships.
Before the pandemic, public health officials played a mostly behind-the-scenes role. But when the virus reached the area, Moyer was thrust in front of reporters on a near-daily basis.
“We’re the front page of the paper most days for the last year,” she said. “That’s been a challenge and a growth opportunity for me. It’s not my favorite part of the job, but I think it’s also important that people have a consistent voice sharing facts and telling the truth about the disease.”
Moyer said she entered medicine to create change and bring equity to health care by improving access to mental health services and nutritional programs. She’s found it difficult to put the issues she’s passionate about on the back burner.
“We’re probably in the midst of our greatest opioid and mental health epidemic,” Moyer said. “Deaths of despair have not gone away in the last year, and all of our staff that used to work on those are all working on COVID.”
Yazel said deciding which public health restrictions to implement kept him up at night. He knew COVID-19 would be a death sentence for many, yet others would die from factors amplified by the lockdown. For instance, Clark County’s drug overdose rate spiked when restrictions began.
Plus, he personally cared for COVID-19 patients in the ER. He said being surrounded by so much death forced him to consider his own mortality.
“It helps you to kind of understand that we’re all here for a finite length of time and to make the most of what we’re given,” Yazel said. “Everybody’s learned to appreciate a good concert, a nice day, a hug from a loved one.”
A Moment In History
For Harris, the trauma of the pandemic prompted deep thinking about life.
His grandparents used to tell him stories about the Great Depression and other historic moments when he was a child. Years down the road, he’ll be a vessel for stories about the pandemic — a thought he finds surreal.
“I think it’s going to be a defining time,” Harris said. “People will have a COVID story. It’ll definitely be part of American society. There’ll be books and stuff based on it. The perspective, though, probably won’t happen for a few more years.”
All three health leaders lean on their support systems and inner strength for comfort.
Their children and spouses have played huge roles in that process. Moyer said she hopes to get more time with them and other family members soon, especially now that more people are vaccinated.
“Both sets of grandparents from my family have been able to visit and that’s been wonderful,” she said. “So [we’re] looking forward to more of that, more vacations and traveling again once more people are vaccinated. All those are great for my own personal mental health going forward and family as well.”
The end of the pandemic, whenever that may be, will be a time for celebration and reflection.
Harris looks forward to traveling more with family. Moyer hopes to find herself on a Delaware beach. Yazel already has plans in the works to take three of his colleagues to a beach house in Florida where they can finally unwind.
But he said it’ll take much more than a vacation to fully process how the pandemic changed society, and how he responded to the challenges it presented.
“I think it’ll be interesting to sit on my deathbed someday and think about this year,” Yazel said. “It’s something I’ll never forget.”