UNI public health professors help fight COVID-19

The impact UNI professors make isn’t just in the classroom, but also in the field. For several UNI public health professors, that has meant traveling to COVID-19 hotspots across the country, working to help keep some of the most vulnerable communities safe. Michele Devlin recently traveled to the Navajo Nation in Arizona, which currently has the highest rate of COVID-19 infections in the United States

“Once you cross the reservation line, it’s a whole other world,” said Devlin. “It’s very remote and there is not a lot of infrastructure. About 40% of the homes do not have any running water, and they may or may not have any electricity. Every single person you met knew many people that had been infected. It was a very stark difference … in terms of how people were dealing with the epidemic and what phase of the epidemic they're in.”

Devlin has a background in public health, as well as experience working as an emergency medical technician (EMT). Stationed at the Kayenta Health Center, Devlin made follow-up calls with patients to help them on their road to recovery, and provided clinical assistance to COVID-19 patients.

According to Catherine Zeman, UNI professor of public health and vice chair of the Black Hawk County Board of Health, working with vulnerable communities like those in the Navajo Nation, is a key part of preventing the spread of COVID-19.

“We want to be able to serve people who are most at risk and get them immediate attention, immediate care, immediate isolation and quarantine as needed,” said Zeman. “This keeps these little embers from becoming fires, and that is the way we're going to succeed in protecting our economy and getting back a semblance of the normality of our lives.”

For Devlin, the experience was a reminder of how important it is to be vigilant in preventing the spread of COVID-19.

“Although [COVID-19] may not be affecting our own personal families, there are others around us that are deeply, deeply affected by this,” said Devlin. “We really need to be aware of those around us because viruses do not stop at borders. They don't stop at countries they don't stop at neighborhoods. They can flow and transmit very easily between many different kinds of populations.”

Devlin has also helped respond to the pandemic locally. She recently worked with the Iowa Department of Health’s disaster medical team in facilitating testing and implementing new safety measures at a number of businesses, including meatpacking plants throughout Iowa, which began reopening earlier this month.

She’s able to bring all her experiences into the classroom. “The experiences I have, as a professor serving the public come right back into the class content,” she said. “It's an unparalleled opportunity to really learn from immersive experiences … and then to take that knowledge back to students.”

Devlin specializes in refugee health, and this special training in working with diverse cultures and people from different socio-economic backgrounds proved beneficial when visiting meatpacking plants. Both refugees and meatpacking workers are considered high-risk groups for infections like COVID-19. Iowa has a large refugee population, and many of them work at meatpacking plants throughout the state.

“We have over 180 languages in the state of Iowa,” said Devlin. “We have a very diverse population. We're often stereotyped as being an all white state and that's actually not true at all. In recent years … we got much more diverse in our communities, and so a lot of my refugee work now is right here in Iowa, in different meatpacking communities.”

According to the International Rescue Committee, refugees can have a number of underlying health issues, due to the impacts of war and famine, that put them at higher risk for COVID-19. The crowded workspaces of meatpacking plants also increases the risk of transmitting the disease. Since meatpacking plants employ a number of refugee workers, the risk of transmission is even higher.

“It’s a messy kind of job,” she said. “You’ve got … all the makings of a faster spread of this particular virus.”

That makes these response missions all the more urgent. As vice chair for the Black Hawk County Board of Health, Zeman helped create a proclamation encouraging local meatpacking plants to temporarily shut down. After closing down temporarily, The Tyson Fresh Meat facility in Waterloo reopened on May 7 with increased safety standards. Now, with restrictions easing and other businesses starting to reopen, Zeman said these increased precautions are even more important.

“I think people should still be smart and careful,” said Zeman. “We should still be doing everything that is suggested about social distancing, making sure we wear a mask when we're around other people. This is how we keep this thing under control.”

For Devlin, the work is as exhilarating as it is important. She has a passion for travel and an admiration of other cultures, which she developed after spending a summer with her brother when he was stationed in Germany. Throughout her career, she’s taken a number of service trips across the world, including places like India and Afghanistan.

“They're sort of shock and awe environments. They overwhelm my senses,” said Devlin. “I love the excitement of that. I love meeting the people and connecting with people that live in those environments, and seeing how well they do and how well they're able to function in environments that are very different from what we're used to in the United States.”

Devlin first developed a love of service in her own backyard. Growing up in the Santa Clarita Valley, Devlin volunteered as an EMT and joined the Los Angeles chapter of the American Red Cross. Devlin continued working professionally in public health while pursuing her degrees from UCLA — including a bachelor’s in East Asian studies, and a master’s and doctorate degree in public health — before coming to UNI to teach. Devlin was drawn to the opportunities for service provided by UNI’s public health program, including the opportunity to continue working with refugee populations.

“I love at UNI, being able to teach on these topics, but part of our job too is to do community engagement and professional service and research in our field,” she said. “I really was drawn to working with the most vulnerable populations … then in middle Iowa, we wind up having an incredible influx of refugees.”

Devlin and Zeman also provide medical advice to refugees, as a part of a 24/7 Virtual Health Line launched by Ethnic Minorities of Burma Advocacy and Resource Center (EMBARC), a nonprofit that helps refugees settle in Iowa. The line allows for people to access medical information and details about COVID-19 in their native language.

As the situation in Iowa changes, Devlin is not slowing down. She’s eager to continue working with the communities most affected by the pandemic, something she says is common among disaster response workers — and the UNI community.

“I think a lot of disaster response people are very comfortable with chaos and trying to figure out how to bring some sense of order to a chaotic environment. Our tendency is to run towards disaster, towards conflict and chaos and and try to help in that work,” she said. “I’m blessed to be able to be a faculty member in a place like UNI that … encourages us to do community service as part of our job. It’s fantastic to ... actually be with the humans that are intimately impacted by this. It's that human factor that really drives me. Being able to connect with them and ... together try to make things better.”

While frontline workers like Devlin and Zeman play an important role in disaster relief situations, Zeman said that with situations like the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s important for everyone in the community to do their part.

“It’s that fabric of all of us coming together that ultimately defeats this thing,” said Zeman. “All the people in the community that are out there doing jobs every day, that bring supplies to us, provide direct patient care — all those things together are going to be what turns us around.”