The ‘COVID Lady’: Public Health Nurse Olivia Scheele serves the community in the midst of a complete change in job description and duties
The COVID-19 pandemic became real for Olivia Scheele when she was on her way to respond to her first call that involved putting on her full suit of personal protective equipment. That call in March was the start of a whirlwind last several months for Moffat County’s Public Health Nurse.
“Around that time everything flipped for me,” Scheele said. “I went from focusing on setting up our office to getting in a full PPE suit and testing someone for COVID.”
Just four months earlier Scheele’s position did not even exist. She was hired in December 2019. Her hiring was part of a process that started in late 2018 when the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment mandated that public health needed to be managed by the Moffat County Board of Commissioners. Since then, the commissioners created a public health department.
“Public health was not our forte when I was elected,” Commissioner Don Cook said. “We followed the regulations to create a team and we are very fortunate to have the group that we have.”
The department consists of Director Kari Ladrow, Public Health Officer, Dr. Brian Harrington, and Scheele. The three have teamed with multiple entities and departments in the county to advise community officials during the pandemic.
For Scheele, her involvement has given her notoriety that she never could have imagined. She said almost every time she goes to the store or out in public she gets recognized as the “COVID Lady.”
“I never expected to become a public figure,” she said. “Whenever I go in public, almost always someone pulls me aside to ask a question or give me their opinion.”
As the only full-time public health nurse, Scheele was tasked with participating in almost every call and meeting on emergency management, review mitigation plans and participate in community and state collaborations. When it comes to having boots on the ground, Scheele’s main work has been in contact tracing (finding out where the infected person has been and who they’ve been in contact with) and communicating information to anyone who was in contact with an infected patient.
Sound like a busy job description? Ladrow can attest to that.
“We have needed to adjust to the volume of work which is around-the-clock, seven-days-a-week,” she said. “I was in administration for a large hospital network and would travel to six different states to 16 different hospitals prior to working in Public Health, and that was busy, but not nearly as busy as this pandemic.”
Part of the busyness is because COVID-19 has no time boundaries.
“The virus doesn’t care if it is a weekend or a holiday and we are here to support the community regardless,” Ladrow said. “We have needed to adjust to operate under very stressful and worrisome conditions, trying to maintain a balance between the health of the community all of the other things we know impact the health of the person: social, economic, mental health, etc..”
In the midst of the 180 degree turn of her job from immunizations, animal bite investigations and children and family health, to PPEs, mouth swabs and lots of meetings.
“Since I took this position I’ve been able to use a lot of my nursing school training,” she said. “But there have also been challenges I never really prepared for in school.”
In the process Scheele has managed to impress her bosses, according to Cook.
“Olivia has conducted herself with professionalism and control,” he said. “We would be in a world of hurt without her help.”
The public process starts for Scheele when a positive case is identified from a lab test. After that, the state health department communicates with Scheele about the test. She contacts the patient and starts to gather information about who they’ve been with and where they’ve been. After that she notifies those who have been in contact with the patient and serves them with documents that encourage and educate about self-isolation.
“For the most part people’s responses have been grateful,” she said. “It’s not easy to stay home for 14 days, so we try to work with them and encourage them.”
Tracking is invaluable to keep the spread and transmission mitigated. Scheele said she was able to track the point of infection for all but two of the local cases of the virus. She credits the honesty of the patients to helping track their whereabouts.
One word of caution she has for the public is that none of the local positive cases of COVID-19 have been related, so that means there are more potential cases than reported. If the cases were related they could have the same origin, but no-relation means no common source and more un-reported infections.
“We’ve also had to dispel some of the Facebook information out there,” she said. “For one, none of the cases identified were false positives. They have all been legit.”
Scheele helped coordinate the drive-up testing days and she is also coordinating with vulnerable populations in the community. She has helped with testing at the Public Safety Center, Horizons Specialized Services and Sandrock Ridge Care and Rehabilitation. Another part of the job has been monitoring how local businesses have adapted and adjusted to the new orders of how to operate.
“For a while there I was getting about 10 calls a day of people tattletaling on businesses,” she said. “The changes have been a hard adjustment for a lot of people and businesses, so our goal is more to educate than dictate.”
Last week Scheele received a call about an animal bite in the community and although that’s not something to celebrate, she did appreciate the call.
“For once I was doing something other than COVID,” she said. “It actually felt a little normal.”
But the word “normal” is not something that she foresees in the near future. Scheele said she does not see the changes going away any time soon.
For instance, Scheele’s new normal has been spending much less time at the clinic she and Ladrow set up in Craig and more time at home in order to reduce her exposure to COVID-19.
“We need people to keep taking it seriously,” she said. “There are still so many variables and challenges. If it wasn’t a real thing, we wouldn’t be taking all of these steps.”
As information about the virus affects changes, the Public Health Department members said they would continue to work with their communities to balance health and caution with the need to go back to the way things were.
“We’ve never seen anything like this,” Scheele said. “There have been other epidemics and we have looked at those to help with our learning process. What we do know is that it’s real and it’s here and things change daily.”
Scheele said she has to adapt and adopt like the rest of the community, and as she move forward she has one primary goal in mind; “to do the most amount of good for the most amount of people,” Scheele said.
Ladrow has no doubt that her co-worker will keep that goal in the forefront.
“Serving this community is in (Scheele’s) blood and she gives it her all, day or night,” she said. “She could make more money working somewhere else or have more prestige, but she chooses to be a nurse and public servant under what has become very dangerous conditions. To demonstrate that level of service to the community as a frontline worker is so commendable it brings tears to my eyes.”
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Moffat County continues to see a downward trend in COVID-19 cases as the community has seen 31 new cases dating back to Friday, Jan. 8, according to Public Health.