Over the last year, many classrooms at Westminster College have been impacted by the news cycle. The pandemic-related recession has crept its way into economics classrooms, inequity in medical care into justice coursework and ethics dilemmas abound in philosophy and honors classes — but no major at Westminster has been impacted as heavily as the public health major.
Tabitha Edson, a fourth-year public health student, exemplifies this impact both in her coursework and her full-time job.
“I always say that I’m getting my degree in COVID, not public health because that’s sometimes what it feels like,” Edson said.
Utah’s case numbers have risen and fallen with the seasons, with the Salt Lake County Health Department reporting peaks around late November and mid-January. With each rise and fall, Edson has shifted from working at a senior care facility at the beginning of the pandemic, to contact tracing, to a vaccine clinic, and then back to contact tracing as public health needs have shifted.
Edson expressed a desire to promote equity in Utah’s COVID-19 response, and her co-worker, Shirley at the Tongan United Methodist Church pop-up clinic, explained how the mobile clinics serve that purpose.
“I’ve done a lot of the mass-vax sites, a lot at the Maverik Center where you’re just doing 500 shots an hour,” Shirley said. “With the mobile clinics, the effort is more to get out to all the populations we have in the valley.”
The Forum sat down with Tabitha Edson to learn more about her experience working in public health during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some answers have been edited for conciseness and clarity.
Q: Can you characterize what your day-to-day has been as a public health major for the last year?
A: Actually, in January I started to work for the Salt Lake County Health Department as a contact tracer, and as our COVID cases have started to go down, I’ve started working with the vaccine clinic. Now that COVID’s kinda on the rise again, I’ve gone back to full-time contact tracing. I’ve had a really good time being able to work at the vaccine clinics.
Q: How has your life had to change as you balance work, life and school?
A: I feel like my life has changed a lot over the past year. I left some of my on-campus jobs in order to be able to work full time. I’ve had a lot of fun being able to gain valuable experience with the health department and increase equity within our COVID response. It’s been hard but I’ve been going to school online, which has been very flexible, also doing my cases in between classes, working at the vaccine clinic on days when my classes are a little bit more slow. Other than that, it’s been pretty good.
Q: How have you dealt with alternately hearing about and dealing with COVID on a 24/7 basis?
A: As far as my professors, my peers, most of them are working on or behind the front lines in COVID response. They have been super great to just be able to reach out to, email with questions and all of that. But I definitely try to take time out for myself, like maybe I have an hour of “no COVID mentions allowed.”
Q: What’s your assessment of the equity and inequity of the local COVID response?
A: We know that COVID is a disease that targets our populations that are traditionally underserved, so minority populations, people of color, people experiencing homelessness. So increasing equity is super important because we want to get rid of the burden of COVID as much as possible within those communities. It’s been great to see Salt Lake County increase their equity throughout the response. There’s always things that can be done better and they have made a really good effort to improve along the way.
Q: What’s your number one piece of advice to people based on where the numbers are right now?
A: My best piece of advice is just to remember that vaccination is a community effort, just as much as it is an individual effort. It’s really promising when an individual gets vaccinated that they are protected from a likelihood of having severe COVID, but the more folks that we can get in the community vaccinated, the sooner we’ll be able to open things up — but we shouldn’t rush. So, one thing is if you are not vaccinated yet, you can go — there’s several websites to get your vaccine — you can go on vaccinefinder.org, Nomi Health, check vaccinate.utah.gov, those are great resources. Sign up, get your appointment. Like I said, vaccination is a community effort, and as the Westminster community, I think we all need to come together to get our shots.