The going-away party was in full swing when I arrived that afternoon in January 1993. We were saying farewell to Janet, the supervisor of the Communicable Disease (CD) Program at Whatcom County Health Department. It was her last day before starting a new job in Tuberculosis Control, and at 5:00 PM, I’d be the new CD supervisor. As I savored a slice of “Good Luck” cake, the supervisor of the Environmental Health Program walked in.
“Just heard there’s an outbreak of E. coli from a Jack-in-the-Box restaurant.”
My eyes widened as I looked at Janet. “Good luck,” she said.
The E. coli outbreak consumed my first weeks as a supervisor. With ten cases in the county of what was then a new strain of the infection, the staff and I scrambled to keep up with directives from the state Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control. When one of those patients—a two-year-old boy—died, we had to calm the fears of all the families whose children attended the same childcare center.
The day after the child’s death, I walked into my office, stepping around memos and faxes I’d stacked into piles on the floor. I moved mounds of paper off my chair and sat in the early morning quiet. Pink “While You Were Out” phone messages littered my desktop. My staffing schedule for the immunization clinic poked out from under the previous day’s Seattle Times with its headlines of E. coli incidence around the state. Young children were on respirators and in kidney failure as a result of this infection, and I still had to make sure we had nurses to give shots to the children who’d be filling our waiting room within an hour; the boxes on the calendar were shadowed with scribbles and white-out. In the following days, I juggled regional and national media and a public who no longer trusted they could eat a hamburger at their favorite fast food stop. The health officer and I met with community groups to provide information about preventing the bacteria’s spread.
“The three most important things you can do are, wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands,” the health officer often repeated. I started wearing a navy-blue bib apron with those instructions written in red.
No, this isn’t my actual apron; that was passed on long ago. But you get the idea.
Memories of that E. coli 0157.H7 outbreak flooded back for me as the world deals with COVID-19. The E. coli epidemic was nowhere near as widespread and elusive as COVID-19, yet I remember well the anxiety, fear, and confusion that filled days and weeks both at work and throughout the county. Now my heart goes out to families who have lost loved ones, people who are seriously ill with the infection, and the thousands of people working around the clock to manage this pandemic. We’re all affected by the outbreak, some much more than others. I’m blessed to have access to health care, a comfortable home and loving partner, adequate food, and a supportive community.
Although I’ve retired from nursing, I feel an obligation to be a resource to family, friends, and the community about this coronavirus. Additionally, as a commissioner for the Lopez Island Hospital District, I’m involved with an interdisciplinary, interagency team working to slow the spread of the virus. And, unlike other outbreaks I’ve worked on in my life, at age 66 I’m in the high-risk group (along with my husband and a great many beloved friends).
Just as was true with the E. coli outbreak, communication is key to protect people from COVID-19. In 1993, some years before nearly everyone had computers and cellular phones and all the ways to communicate that they provide, we had to rely on print newspapers, faxes, flyers, and aprons bearing a public health message.
Today, however, we have access to a great deal of information, including live streaming of press conferences, hotlines, news flashes delivered to our email boxes, access to websites for virtually every public health organization, and reports from around the world. We’re also learning terms such as social distancing, pandemic, community spread, high-touch surfaces, and self-quarantine.
As much as I promote handwashing, there are a few other useful self-care tips that haven’t been promoted as widely:
- How to clean your mobile phone: According to the New York Times, a “ 2017 study published in the journal Germs found a host of bacteria, viruses and pathogens on 27 phones owned by teenagers.” The scientists wrote “this may play a role in the spread of infectious agents in the community.”
- How to clean your computer keyboard and mouse.
There’s still much we don’t know about COVID-19, and information and recommendations change—daily and even hourly. Combine that with misinformation, rumors, fear, and grief, and it can all be quite overwhelming. I’ve found websites and social media sites for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO), state and county health departments, and local school districts informative without being overly complex or promoting fear. I urge you to turn to them to help answer your questions.
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The E. coli outbreak, among other aspects of my work, took its toll on me. I eventually came to question what I was being led to do, and spent two years with my family in Stehekin, WA to discern my path (you can read all about that in my memoir, Hiking Naked ). When we left Stehekin, we moved to Lopez Island, WA in 1996, and I began a public health consulting practice. After life in a community with no telephones and communicating by post cards and chats as we passed each other on the road, I had to learn new ways to conduct business. I soon acquired a telephone, a home computer, and an e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org. That address seemed fitting until I started to focus on writing and book arts. When I retired from nursing, I also retired that address. Kind of wish I still had it.