The End of a Chapter

A little over a year ago, after it became clear that the coronavirus had escaped from China and was coming our way, I was asked by the director of our division if I was willing to be activated into the emergency response. He didn’t have to ask. I would have found a way to collaborate to the response even if I had not been part of it. A few days later, I was made the chief of the outbreak team.

Ever since, we have responded to outbreaks in congregate living facilities like skilled nursing facilities, assisted living facilities and independent living facilities. Our team consisted of public health nurses, environmental health specialists, data analysts and epidemiologists. We all worked some very long days when the pandemic began, easing a little over the summer before picking back up again in the winter.

This week marks the end of my time as the chief of the outbreak team. The positivity rate in our health district is now at 1.25%. In Maryland, it is at 1.98%. In Washington, DC, it is at 1.5%. The number of cases from congregate settings has dropped precipitously as vaccination uptake reached well over 90% in most facilities among their residents, though it could be better among their staff. Overall in the communities, more than half of eligible adults have been vaccinated, with many parents taking their younger kids to get vaccinated and younger adults also participating (thanks in part to schools and universities requiring vaccination before returning to in-person teaching).

Things are looking up, though we need to continue to be vigilant. I’m personally not taking off the mask in the office until all three jurisdictions I mentioned above reach less than 1% positivity. I just don’t want to catch this and give it to my preschooler. Because of the epidemiological transition from the vaccine, children are now the group contributing the most to the overall number of cases in the country, so I want to keep her safe. The pandemic is definitely not over.

Starting next week, I will go back to working on population health epidemiology, looking at diseases and conditions like opioid overdoses, suicides, and mental health. I’m also adding some new people to my team, bright epidemiologists who are starting out in the profession and have much to learn. I’m planning on getting a lot done in the next few months, things that will hopefully make countering most of those diseases and conditions a little bit easier.

It’s the end of a chapter, and it feels weird. Sure, I’ll probably still need to support the activities of the team that is taking over COVID-19 investigations, and there will be plenty of “How did the pandemic affect X or Y?” questions. As one of the few people who speak Spanish — and the one epidemiologist who does so fluently — I’m sure there will be still some media requests about COVID-19 that I will have to answer. So, there is certainly a lot to be done to bring it all to a close… And I’m ready.


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