They worked behind the scenes as the pandemic unfolded, often preventing the tragedy from becoming more tragic. They assembled data and made sense of its complexity. They comforted the elderly and the poor. And they ventured into parts of our community where the risk was the highest and the damage was the greatest. No one will ever know how many people didn’t die or get gravely ill because of their efforts, but this much is certain: They are the unsung heroes of the pandemic, and they made a difference. Here are some of their stories.
County Epidemiology Team
Kathryn Pack and the county’s epidemiology team were at the fore of the county’s battle against the pandemic. Pack, Sonoma County’s health program manager, oversaw six epidemiologists, known colloquially as “epis,” and a data management staff of four.
Their duties included managing all COVID-19 data on cases, testing, vaccines, variants, hospitalizations and deaths. The team has populated the county's data dashboards, produced surveillance and outbreak reports and kept public health leadership and the community up-to-date on the latest virus trends.
The team has also conducted investigations on the county's more than 83,000 COVID-19 cases to determine source of infection. They’ve tracked outbreaks in vulnerable populations, and helped inform infection prevention efforts. And they’ve conducted vaccine hesitancy research and mapped virus hot spots and vaccination levels to guide outreach strategies for the vaccine and testing teams.
Epidemiologist Jenny Mercado worked closely with individual labs to ensure all testing was entered into the state lab portal. She also reviewed and reported other data related to the pandemic including hospitalizations and deaths from self-harm/suicide, drug overdoses and other causes of death.
She said the first year was difficult because the local COVID-19 surveillance network had to be built from scratch.
“Initially, there was no case/contact tracing database, so we collected, cleaned, reviewed, and entered all of the case and contact data manually,” she said.
Overnight, the team found itself essentially playing the Superbowl of public health crises.
“There was a transition from a normal work week to working every day that was initially difficult,” Mercado said. “This came at the same time that all of our kids were home and we were also acting as teachers. This was the most challenging time for work-life balance.”
Lucinda Gardner, another epidemiologist, was in charge of reviewing, tracking and analyzing the data for all COVID-19-related hospitalizations and deaths. She also developed internal systems to flag for review any death following COVID vaccinations.;
“The first local cases and first deaths were awful — signaling that COVID was actually here and threatening out community,” she said.
Gardner said “pandemic response has required 7-day a week attention, so my laptop has traveled with me on all family trips and even one fire evacuation.”
As head of the epi team, Pack coordinated her staff’s efforts and synthesized all that data for public health officials, the Board of Supervisors, state health officials, the media and the public. She continues to maintain data on the county’s hospital capacity dashboard — a pandemic metric — and assists with case investigations and data analysis.
Pack said COVID-19 continues to be “one of the greatest public health threats” facing the county. She said her team will continue tracking COVID-19.
“We will also be focusing on using data to understand the other impacts of the pandemic and deferred care on the community's mental and physical health and well-being,” she said.
The epi’s efforts were instrumental to the work of Sonoma County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase and Dr. Urmila Shende, the county’s vaccine chief. Aside from Pack, Mercado and Gardner, epi team also included Julia Rubin, Aleksandr Bukatko, Robin Hauschner, Jonathan Brock. Data management specialists were Ashley Taranto, Dawn York, Josie Nowak and Anna Mayfair-Diaz.
Cheryl Fox, owner Fox Home Health
Before the pandemic, Fox Home Health provided private home health care services to residents of skilled nursing and non-skilled homes. Cheryl Fox, a registered nurse and the agency’s founder and CEO, is a longtime Santa Rosa resident with deep roots in the community.