OSWEGO — Public health touches all levels of the community; from pre-natal health care to hospice care, from the food we eat to the water we drink, from rabies control to emergency preparedness. With a variety of programs focused on these issues and more, the Oswego County Health Department strives to promote good health and wellness practices and ensure that communities throughout the county are thriving.
The county first established its public health nursing division in the 1960s, so it has a long tradition of delivering quality services to residents. Then, as now, its highly trained staff is on-call to provide skilled care on a variety of fronts, including preventative health care.
“We are lucky to have these people on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic in our county,” said Oswego County Legislature Chairman James Weatherup, District 9. “Not all counties have staff with this level of training and expertise in epidemiology. They work tirelessly every day to manage the county’s response to the coronavirus while adhering to guidance set forth by the state.”
Oswego County Legislator James Karasek, District 22, chairman of the Oswego County Health Committee agreed. “Residents can be assured we have an excellent team responding to this crisis. Not only is our public health director a trained epidemiologist, but our nursing staff also has decades of combined experience in preventative health care.”
Leading the team is Oswego County Public Health Director Jiancheng Huang. He arrived in Oswego County in 2012 after several years with the Maine Immunization Program of the Maine Centers for Disease Control (CDC); first as an epidemiologist, then as the program’s director. A Harvard graduate with a degree in population and international health, Huang is experienced in biomedical research and has served various regional and national workgroups to promote the understanding of infectious disease and immunization.
“Epidemiology is an important cornerstone of public health,” said Huang. “It is an evidence-based science that provides the foundation of our decision-making process. Only with thorough investigation and unbiased analysis can we identify cause and effect, and then determine the best course of action – that is, the most effective and appropriate responses – to public health issues.
It is these very life-saving practices that brought him into the field of public health.
“I realized that as a doctor, I could only treat patients one by one,” said Huang. “But as a member of a public health agency, we can address many of the broader issues that impact the well-being of our residents and effect real change. In this way, the whole of the population is the patient and we can help educate and encourage people to improve the overall health of the community. This is what epidemiology is.”
Choosing to work in a rural location is no accident either. Through his internship in a rural hospital, he recognized the need for quality public health practices in that setting and knew he could be the most help there.
While Huang has largely worked with rural populations, he nevertheless has had experience with major public health crises before this, including severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and H1N1.
“I worked with the SARS outbreak in 2003 and the H1N1 pandemic in 2009,” said Huang. “COVID-19 is perhaps the most challenging of the three in its effect on public health. None of the past outbreaks were at a scale that is close to this.
“That being said,” he continued. “I have complete faith in the capabilities of our epidemiology team and in the skills and experience of our entire staff. Public health relies on teamwork. With the dedication of our health department team and the support of our community, I know that we will all get through this difficult time together.”
Over the years, Oswego County has made a significant investment in its staff to increase their epidemiology capabilities.
Tina Bourgeois is a senior LPN with 30 years of experience focused on investigating communicable diseases and promoting immunizations.
“COVID-19 hasn’t really changed what I do most days,” said Bourgeois. “Every year, I investigate hundreds of reportable communicable diseases through contact tracing. The thing that’s new is the virus itself, so we’re learning more about that every day.”
When a patient tests positive for coronavirus, Bourgeois contacts that person to go over the results. She said that can be difficult because there is a lot of fear, confusion and uncertainty about this new virus.
“Many people are scared, they don’t know what to expect,” she said. “As an investigator you have to be kind. Listen to their concerns and give them some reassurance. Be honest and answer all their questions as best as you can. When I talk to people, I make sure they understand their diagnosis and are receiving the proper treatment so they can get well.”
Investigators also ask if patients have been in contact with other people so they can determine if others may have been exposed or need treatment. “We have to reduce the spread of this disease, so it’s not uncommon for me to have to tell people they need to stay home for a period of time,” said Bourgeois. “We’ll review work restrictions or talk about how to prevent exposing other family members in the home to the disease.”
Huang said, “Tina’s experience is one of the strengths of this team. She asks so many good, detailed questions. We learn a lot from her about contact tracing.”
Oswego County has long encouraged the use of educational and career incentives where possible to better develop an employees’ capabilities.
Chantel Eckert, DNP, RN, has repeatedly taken on the challenge of higher education to the benefit of the county’s health department. She said, “Advanced education has provided me with a solid foundation in clinical prevention and population health which has been instrumental in helping me see the big picture of this pandemic.”
Eckert serves as program manager for Healthy Families Oswego County and, as a supervising public health nurse, continues to assist with coverage of the health department’s nursing division. In the wake of the current pandemic, this includes helping with the nursing phone bank by answering medical questions and concerns from the public. She also exercises her analytical skills to track the virus’ activity.
“The majority of my time is spent collecting and analyzing data related to the coronavirus,” said Eckert. “Using a systematic approach, I can identify trends with the virus and provide accurate and timely information to our team. This helps them with public reporting, contact investigations and, most importantly, determining the appropriate prevention and control measures to implement to reduce the spread of the disease.”
Huang said, “This is the science of epidemiology. It is how we respond to the pandemic and keep our residents safe. Scholarly data analysis is a critical skill during a public health crisis. Chantel’s doctoral education is a valuable asset to the team.”
Jodi Martin, RN, BSN, continues along the path of higher learning to further enhance her skills and capabilities with the health department. She completed a Health Leadership Fellow
Program last year and is now pursuing her master’s degree in nursing with an emphasis on public health.
“My fellowship and current studies, combined with a decade-long career in public health have helped prepare me for this challenge,” said Martin. “I view the data in a new way which gives me a better understanding of public health activities and improves my ability to respond to this unprecedented crisis.”
Martin, also a supervisory public health nurse, works with many public health programs in the department’s preventative care unit, including communicable disease surveillance and the immunization program.
Last summer, Oswego County saw a spike in hepatitis A cases, the highest in the state. “I’m very proud of our work in identifying the high-risk populations and finding creative ways to reach out to them,” she said. “We were able to complete difficult contact investigations and provide vaccinations to at-risk individuals.”
Huang added, “Our team was very successful in containing this disease and received praise from the state Department of Health for our hard work. In addition, several other counties in the state asked us to share our disease containment activities. Jodi’s creative thinking was an integral part of that success. She continues to bring a fresh perspective on public health to the team.”
Dr. Christina Liepke, medical director for Oswego County, brings nearly two decades of experience in family medicine to the team. A graduate of Upstate Medical University, Dr. Liepke served on the Oswego County Board for Health for several years before being named medical director for Oswego County’s Health Department and Hospice Program in 2014. She also maintains a family medicine practice with Port City Family Medicine.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is a humbling experience; unprecedented in its magnitude,” said Dr. Liepke. “What I have learned from it is that we have an amazingly generous community and dedicated staff who are unwavering in their duties. Through it all, everyone on our health department team, from our nurses to the public health director, works day after day without complaint to safeguard our residents. It is a compassionate, collaborative and creative team – qualities we need when facing such a unique disease – and I am humbled and thankful to work with such amazing people.”
Huang agreed, “We have a wonderful team managing Oswego County’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Liepke’s role is important to continue the county’s long tradition of health care services and activities. Epidemiology is another branch of medicine and she brings great insights to our decision-making processes. Her input is indispensable to the entire team.”
For more information about Oswego County’s COVID-19 response, go to oswegocounty.com or health.oswegocounty.com/covid-19. Additional questions can be directed to the Oswego County Health Department COVID-19 Hotline at 315-349-3330 from 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday through Friday. For information about emotional supports, visit the Oswego County Department of Social Services Division of Mental Hygiene at www.oswegocounty.com/mentalhygiene.