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Utah’s New State Epidemiologist Takes On Key Role As COVID-19 Cases Surge

A photo of Dr. Leisha Nolen.
Courtesy of Dr. Leisha Nolen
COVID-19 case numbers started to spike just as Utah’s new state epidemiologist, Dr. Leisha Nolen, assumed the position in early July.

Utah’s new State Epidemiologist assumed her position just as the Delta variant led to a spike in COVID-19 cases in Utah. Dr. Leisha Nolen started July 6 and was immediately immersed in that reality. Nolen is no stranger to deadly viruses though. She worked in West Africa during the 2014 Ebola outbreak and was a first responder when COVID-19 was initially identified at a nursing home in Seattle. Most recently, she was at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Juneau, Alaska.

KUER’s Pamela McCall spoke with Nolen about how her work has prepared her for her time in Utah.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Pamela McCall: You were one of the first responders in Seattle when COVID-19 was identified at a nursing home. At the time, we didn't really have an idea what was in store. Are you shocked the pandemic has lasted this long?

Leisha Nolen: Certainly back in February — a year and a half ago now — we did not know what we were up against. We'd seen it spread across the world quite rapidly. We saw that the virus was having big impacts in Europe. But we couldn't have predicted what was going to happen for the next year and a half and that we’d still be involved in this this far out.

PM: What was it like for you to be on the ground when this took hold?

I think it was something that was really challenging — trying to get resources together when really we weren't aware of what the situation was fully. So it was a challenge, but I think it was something that we'd all been training for, for a long time. And it put us all to the test. I think in many ways we've succeeded. But of course, in other ways we've failed and learned along the way. So it's been interesting work and something that I hope that we have improved over time and we're going to be able to get more and more on top of things.

PM: How does this affect you personally when you take on this job and see the numbers go up and the reality of the Delta variant upon us?

LN: When I took this job, I think the Department of Health was really hoping that we were in the downswing. It was actually when things were looking very good in the spring and we were hoping that I could come and help bring back on track all the other health priorities we have. Because certainly COVID is just one. And unfortunately, because it's been so dominant this last year and a half, a number of different other health priorities have been neglected. We were all hoping that I could come and help reinstitute all those different programs and get them back up on track. But unfortunately, the Delta variant has derailed that plan.

PM: So much of the COVID response has been politicized. There were even protests at the home of Utah's former state epidemiologist. How do you navigate those waters while keeping your focus on what's best for public health?

LN: It's really important for all of us to remember that there are so many different angles to this pandemic. It's an infectious disease, but it affects people’s entire lives. So as a state epidemiologist, I recognize that I can look at the science, but I also need to look at the reality of what people are doing and what their jobs are — what their lives require. It's not possible for everybody to do all the things that are scientifically the best approach. So really, it's my job to work with all different leaders and all the different organizations to try to find the best approach for every group of people that will protect them as much as possible.

PM: You did your pediatric residency at Boston Children's Hospital. What did you learn there that you’re bringing to your work, especially as we're seeing the surge in COVID case numbers in Utah just as kids return to school?

LN: I think being a pediatrician is a great training on how to talk to people. When you're a pediatrician, you have a lot of families who are very concerned with whatever is going on with their child. So learning how to talk to families in stress is really a big part of that entire training. And in many ways, that carries over to COVID. We have a lot of people and families in stress and trying to make it so they can understand what is happening and understand what the options are in simple language.

We are seeing an uptick in cases in kids. This has been seen throughout the country, in the world with the Delta variant. So far, it doesn't seem that the virus causes more severe disease in kids, but it certainly is affecting a lot of kids and that's likely because it's so easily transmitted. So we're just getting a lot of kids getting this and passing it around. This is a time where we should reconsider what activities we're doing — think about getting the masks back out and putting it on so that we can try to stop this increase before it goes too high.

PM: You were there at the beginning in Seattle. Will we be seeing an end to this any time soon? What's your best guess or estimation through science as to when we can get back to normal life in Utah?

LN: That's very hard to predict. I do think one thing that really impacts all of this is can we get the transmission to stop? Because we know as long as that virus keeps moving around, it has the opportunity to mutate. And those mutations are what causes the variants to come up. And the more we continue to have it transmit in our communities around the world, we're going to have more variants come up. And that could possibly lead to more severe types of virus. So it's really important for all of us to try to stop this transmission and a very important tool is the vaccination. I think our future depends on how well we can all work together to get vaccinated, to prevent transmission and make sure that this virus gets squashed out sooner than later before it has an opportunity to change again.

Pamela is KUER's All Things Considered Host.
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