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Waiting in line
A fresh graduate from public health, I was beyond excited and enthusiastic to get started in my epidemiology career. But, as we all know, you don’t always land into that dream position right away. It took some time before I was able to land in public health directly. I worked in a lot of research positions, and epidemiologist roles, but more so related to health system surveillance. I call this phase ‘waiting in line’. You must know the feeling, waiting in line for a ride and watching everyone else having fun, some look like they are having the time of their lives, some people look like they are about to be sick, and some screaming to get them off. I absolutely couldn’t wait, I knew it would be my turn one day, but for now, I was eagerly watching some of my colleagues and others on the public health rollercoaster, hoping I would get to experience it soon.
You’re up next
Continuing with my rollercoaster analogy, I was almost at the front of the line now. I landed my first role in public health and I was as excited as ever to get started. The rollercoaster car pulls up, I climb into my seat and fasten my seatbelt. Ontario goes into lockdown on March 17, 2020, two weeks after my first day on the job. Looking around on the roller coaster car, some people are still really excited for what is about to come, some people look scared, and of course, some are asking to get off. I was one of the excited ones. Is this really happening? A pandemic? A lockdown? And I get to work alongside all these incredible public health professionals through it all? The excitement and uncertainty were overwhelming, I can confidently say I did not have one ounce of fear in me (yet).
The thrill and excitement
The months that followed involved a lot of adapting and quick thinking. Everything I learned in graduate school about outbreaks and surveillance came to the forefront. You must remember, the pandemic was still very fresh, there were a lot of questions and many things to learn. Everyday brought something different, and I was constantly learning new things very fast to keep up with changing demands. In the first 6 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, I learned so much more about outbreak management, surveillance, contact and case tracing, case management, the different parts of a pandemic response, and most importantly how the public health unit operates in different teams but ultimately comes together as a literal unit to tackle the pandemic.
When I say quick thinking and fast learning, I mean it. You must learn to adapt to situations presented in front of you quickly and efficiently. Whether that means switching gears and supporting another team with their work or taking on a request for something that you might have not ever done before, and doing it, fast. Deadlines are out the window, with the pandemic response, usually the need for information is urgent and imminent, the faster you can get it done the better.
My favourite part of working in this response, was getting the opportunity to collaborate and work with people from all over the health unit. In a non-pandemic situation, you might be used to working with your team only on a day-to-day basis. In the pandemic, I have gotten the opportunity to work with so many different people from areas ranging from analytics and rapid response to mass vaccination clinical operations and long-term care. This gives you the opportunity to learn so much from all these interactions and experiences. Every person brings a new perspective or comes from a different lens, and seeing how all the moving parts come together to produce a report, respond to a request for analytics, or even put up a clinic and distribute vaccine to our community, is just truly amazing.
I have been given the chance to be involved in some monumental moments in public health history. Firstly the pandemic itself will be something I never forget. But also through my work as an epidemiologist during this response, I was given the opportunity to learn more about the state of our long term care homes and how the vulnerable were impacted by this horrible disease, the moment hand hygiene and masking because the most important thing in society, an incredible mass vaccination campaign and strategy, and finally witnessing case counts drop to all time lows and knowing our efforts were making a difference.
The fear and moments of doubt
For the average person, unless you’re a rollercoaster fanatic, there is a moment during the ride where you see a giant loop coming up where you might start to experience fear or doubt. For me, this came in the form of mental exhaustion, not from work, but from external sources. One thing I want to stress to everyone who is planning on going into public health or epidemiology is that there is always someone who is going to want to attack you. I’ve had my fair share of arguments with anti-vaxxers, but this was something else.
During the SARS outbreak in 2003, social media was not as prominent as it is now. I remember my only source of information being the news on TV. With the rise of social media in the recent years, news spreads within the blink of an eye, and fake news spreads even faster. I felt overwhelmed and sick to my stomach with the amount of misinformation I was seeing and how fast it was spreading. As public health professionals, we feel compelled to educate and clear up misinformation, but I slowly started to realize that everyone on the internet thought they were a professional as well.
It was mentally draining and exhausting to be on social media during the pandemic. To be at work and be around amazing people who are putting in hours of their time, leaving behind family and personal lives, to dedicate their efforts to the response, made me see how hard everyone was working to make sure our community was going to come out of this okay. But then to come home and see discouraging content on social media, and even worse, to hear your own family and friends discouraging the efforts of public health, made it difficult to stay positive during these dark times.
It felt like everyone thought they were the experts, refuting the advice of our doctors and public health professionals, and instead spreading dangerous misinformation. Any attempt to try and educate people or clarify, would result in attacks and dismissive online verbal abuse. It was during this time that I decided to limit myself to COVID information on social media and remove myself from negative discussions related to the response.
We’re all here together
As you approach the scary loop in the rollercoaster, you might feel like you’re the only one absolutely terrified about what is happening. But when you look around, you see two things: firstly, that there are other people as terrified as you are, and secondly that everyone on this rollercoaster car is going to go through this loop together. We’re all here together.
Having a supportive work environment as well as supportive colleagues around you makes the world of a difference in challenging times. Often feeling discouraged and mentally exhausted from hearing and seeing everything in the media/social media, I would find comfort knowing that I belong to an amazing team full of incredible people who are supportive, and we are all working towards the same goal. The people you work with kind of become a second family, and I found comfort in knowing that while trying to navigate through the negativity. I think its also important to remind yourself of your goal. I genuinely love public health and epidemiology, and I am passionate about making an impact. Reminding myself of this everyday helped me to drive forward when the noise just got a little too loud.
The first few moments after the ride stops, some people laugh at themselves at how scared they were, some are just anxious to get off and never look back, and some are punching the air because they totally loved every moment of it. I’m not sure I can say how I feel at this point of the ride just yet- because the ride isn’t over for us. But looking back over the last two years, I am truly grateful for the amount I have learned and experienced during this pandemic. I started off in this response a little shaky, I was nervous about learning all these new skills so quickly, and also felt a bit of imposter syndrome, because I had just started in the field. Two years later, I am just in awe at all the new tools and skills I have under my belt. My advice to anyone starting out in public health is to learn as much as you can, in anyway you can. Look for learning opportunities, constantly be on the look out for ways to sharpen existing skills or develop new ones, position yourself so that you stand out with new skillset, and most importantly network with your colleagues to learn more about your organization.
Looking back, my favourite part about working through the pandemic is just that- that I was given the opportunity to work through it. The COVID-19 pandemic is going to be a huge chapter in history. I never imagined I would ever be given the chance to be as deeply involved in a pandemic response as I am today, it truly is a great feeling to be working alongside a great public health team.
Once people face one rollercoaster, they are ready to face them all. Often rushing to get onto the next bigger and scarier one.
Emerging infectious diseases are unfortunately going to be part of our future for years to come. I studied emerging disease around 10 years ago in undergraduate studies and remember thinking that “diseases of the future” are just around the corner. Its unfortunate but as our world becomes increasingly more connected, we give new viruses and infectious disease the opportunity to travel the world as well. It is a great time to get into the world of public health. The world is facing epidemics and pandemics that our generation has never seen before and there is a lot to do to increase our public health and health systems to make sure we can continue to fight and prevent any further outbreaks from crippling our world the way COVID-19 has.
For anyone who is thinking about getting into epidemiology or studying infectious disease, I think there is no better time to get in than right now. We need more people who are genuinely passionate about protecting and promoting health in our communities.
The COVID-19 rollercoaster ride certainly has not ended for me quite yet, but to all considering a challenging and equally as exciting career in public health during these tough times, I say if you’re up next, take a seat on that rollercoaster car, buckle up, and enjoy the ride. It’s totally worth it!