Alumni Feature

COVID-19 Public Health Heroes

COVID-19 has obviously had dramatic effects on all parts of our lives.  In periods of adversity, heroes rise to the top.  This Q&A session highlights two such heroes working on the front lines in public health.  Though they would prefer not to be called heroes, we believe they are deserving of the title.  We salute and thank them and all of the frontline workers going above and beyond during this pandemic. 

JP Heim ‘98 and Claire (Vanden Wymelenberg) Evers ’98 both have fulfilling jobs in public health.  Both took some time out of their extremely busy and chaotic schedules to answer some questions regarding their jobs, their responsibilities and some changes as a result of the pandemic. 

1. Can you briefly describe your current role and job responsibilities and how these have transformed since the COVID-19 outbreak?

JP (Pictured, right, with his family): I am currently the Public Health Emergency Preparedness Planner for Outagamie County. In this role, I work closely with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to identify, plan for, and mitigate public health related emergencies here in Outagamie County. Additional responsibilities have included public information and communications guidance. While the “emergencies” are almost never in the headlines the way COVID-19 is today, public health is responsible for assurance and prevention roles in our communities, which includes disease surveillance and investigations of all communicable diseases and outbreaks.

The effects of COVID-19 on my work continue to unfold nearly every day. The impact is real-time and will profoundly impact our future planning and response. Specific response planning I have helped to lead include isolation centers, community testing sites and point of dispensing sites.

Not since the last flu pandemic over 100 years ago has the world seen an event such as this and the what-ifs of a repeat outbreak were just that, what-ifs.

Claire:  I am the Deputy Commissioner of Environmental Health for the City of Milwaukee Health Department. Before the COVID-19 response I spent a lot of my time planning for the Democratic National Convention 2020 in my role overseeing Emergency Preparedness and Consumer Environmental Health.  I put in a lot of hours but was able to take off for my kids’ school events, vacations and had my weekends off.  Since we began the COVID-19 response, I am working 10-12 hours a day, 7 days a week.  Additionally, most of my time is spent on Zoom meetings collaborating with other local health professionals, developing policies and procedures, as well as outreach.

2. Obviously, this has been a trying time on both a personal and professional level. What do you feel have been the most difficult challenges you have faced and at the end of the day what, if any, have been the rewards?

JP:  The what-ifs mentioned above lead to one of the main challenges to response and mitigation efforts with a situation like this. Effective planning efforts by public health experts throughout the world can only account for so many scenarios. With the fortunate infrequency of pandemics, the plans of today are based on scenarios from 100 years ago adapted for today. Candidly, anticipating how a virus that was unknown just months ago will affect our lives here in northeast Wisconsin has been mentally exhausting. Further compounded by variables such as misinformation and an impatient/need-it-now society that makes mitigation tactics like social distancing and stay-at-home orders not as effective as they could be.

What I do know is that there are incredibly capable and talented individuals here in Outagamie County who have been working tirelessly the past few months, spearheading the local public health response and uniting together around an even more common purpose. Through long hours, highs and lows, the efforts to help the community and residents remain steadfast.

Claire (Pictured, right, with her family):  The most difficult thing I am dealing with is the shear amount of work that needs to be done.  I don’t have the time I want with my family.  It is very difficult to homeschool my kids (ages 5 and 7) as well as to just keep up with regular home life.  Before COVID I made a very concerted effort to not work while my kids were awake and I was spending time with them, I saved that for late nights and early mornings.  Now with us all home, they see me working constantly and I can tell that is starting to wear on them. 

I am rewarded when I hear that what we are doing is making a difference.  I constantly respond to concerned citizens and business owners who are worried and confused.  Providing them the information on what we have done and are planning to do to help them stay safe is meaningful.

3. Being on the front line of the COVID-19 pandemic on a daily basis requires a unique skill set. How have you been able to persevere through this difficult and stressful time? Are there any specific character traits that you feel Xavier helped instill in you to help prepare you for this crisis?

JP:  There are three things that have enabled me to get through this situation. First and foremost, faith. In taking a leadership role for the county’s response, there is a significant importance on maintaining calm and clarity while navigating unchartered waters…and it is my faith that has allowed me to pause and find the safe harbor at just the right moments. There is zero doubt that the faith formation provided through the Xavier system helped to develop and shape my faith into what it is today.

Second, my family…the past months have brought long hours and without the constant love and support of my wife, Katie, and our girls, stepping back into the arena every day would be difficult.

Lastly, my experience. Not professionally, but as a volunteer, thanks in no small part to the service hours and mission trip during my time at Xavier. Much of my volunteer work has been with Team Rubicon, a disaster response organization. Joining as a general member and advancing to a leadership role in communications across 10 states has, without question, enabled me to be more prepared in my COVID-19 response role as a professional. Working with communities during their most difficult times provides an incredible dose of renewed perspective and drive to continue to do good no matter the circumstances. 

Claire:  Xavier leads its students in a way to be selfless and instills the importance of caring for your community.  If I didn’t find that to be one of the most important things I do, I couldn’t carry on in this response.  It is rewarding to me to serve others and my work at the health department is directed at addressing the social determinants of health.  The COVID-19 response is no different, our vulnerable community is suffering at a great rate.

4. On behalf of the entire Xavier community, we thank you for your leadership and service. Are there any words of wisdom or reflections that you would like to share with our Xavier Family?

JP:  If you would have told me back in 1998 that 22 years from then I would have a professional career that started with an NBA Championship with the Detroit Pistons, to experiencing the largest bankruptcy in history while with General Motors, to eight moves across four states, and a global pandemic, I’d have said nothing out of sheer disbelief.

I share this because none of us know what truly lies ahead…but what I do know is that each of our experiences leads to the next. Good and bad, each of these are moments to learn from and reflect upon. Leaning on faith and knowing when to trust in that faith will provide us with rewards never imagined.

Claire:  The Xavier community provides just that, a community.  It is so important for all of us to take care of each other and support each other.  That is the foundation of my career in public health and what I do every day is rewarding.