Oles on the Front Lines of a Global Pandemic
When COVID-19 swept the nation and the world, igniting a global pandemic, the St. Olaf community watched in awe as our alumni responded creatively and courageously, pivoting seamlessly to address an unforeseen challenge in their communities and leveraging the critical thinking skills they gained through their liberal arts education to seek solutions to the spread of a novel virus.
In the midst of a public health crisis, we are deeply proud of our graduates who have joined the front lines within the health care and other essential fields.
We interviewed 13 Oles who have taken the lead within the health care field, a small sample size, about how their roles have changed in the wake of COVID-19. Eleven alumni are working at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an organization that has been instrumental in mitigating the impact of the pandemic and providing safety guidelines for a novel virus when there were none. We spoke with three alumni at the CDC, who shed some light on what their work looks like these days.
Our conversations provided further proof, as if we needed more, that Oles are individuals who hold true to their values and give their best to make the world a better place.
St. Olaf College alumni and spouses Claire Petchler ’14 and Sudip Bhandari ’14 are currently living in Baltimore, Maryland. Claire is a nurse at the Cardiovascular Interventional Laboratory at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, and a Ph.D./D.N.P. student at the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing. Sudip is a Ph.D. candidate at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
We asked them to share how their roles have shifted in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, key takeaways from their experience fighting the outbreak, and any advice they have for fellow Oles.
Sudip Bhandari ’14
Ph.D. Candidate, Health Systems Program
Department of International Health
Johns Hopkins University, Bloomberg School of Public Health
While his wife, Claire, works with individual COVID-19 patients, Sudip Bhandari tackles the virus on a population level.
As a researcher in the Department of International Health at Johns Hopkins, Sudip works with scientists from low- and middle-income countries globally to identify immediate research needs that inform COVID-19 policy responses. These research agendas include understanding the transmission patterns of SARS-CoV-2 in resource-poor settings, the clinical characteristics of the disease the virus causes among vulnerable populations, and the impact of pandemic prevention and response measures in these countries. His team’s research paper has been published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Global Health Research and Policy.
In addition, Sudip is working on a Johns Hopkins project (funded through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) that is supporting the state government of Uttar Pradesh (UP). UP is the most populous state in Northern India, with over 230 million people. Sudip’s project assists with the analysis of epidemiological data; the formulation of policy around surveillance, containment, and case management; and the writing of a case study on UP’s response efforts.
Sudip is currently finishing his Ph.D. in international health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. His dissertation focuses on ways to improve core competencies of public health professionals in low-resource settings so that they can more effectively deliver essential health services like prevention, detection, and response to disease outbreaks.
“We want Oles to know that each individual can play a role to stop the pandemic. It can be as simple as staying indoors and following public health guidelines, actively engaging through joining contact tracing efforts in the local health department, making and donating masks to people or organizations who need them, or doing ‘virtual visits’ with neighbors and community members in isolation.”
Claire Petchler ’14
Nurse Clinician II, Johns Hopkins Hospital
In response to the pandemic, Claire Petchler began volunteering to work on the COVID-19 biocontainment Intensive Care Unit (ICU) at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in mid-March. She describes COVID-19 ICU patients as critically ill and requiring maximum life support. To take care of these patients, Claire manages critical care intravenous (IV) medications, ventilators, dialysis machines, and extracorporeal membrane oxygenation machines (also known as ECMOs, machines that provide maximum heart and lung support, similar to “heart-lung-bypass machines”).
Claire explains that the COVID-19 ICU differs from typical ICUs for several reasons: First, the whole unit is converted into negative pressure airflow and is “locked” with a separate entrance and exit. The unit staff wear personal protective equipment, such as a positive air pressure respirator (PAPR) or an N-95 mask with a protective face shield. Additionally, the whole hospital has implemented a restricted visitor policy to keep visitors and staff safe, so Petchler coordinates Zoom meetings with patient family members so that they can virtually visit their loved ones.
Prior to the pandemic, Claire trained new graduate nurses to work in the ICU over a three-month preceptorship. However, the volume of COVID-19 patients has accelerated that timeline. She now rapidly trains experienced mid-level nurses to manage ventilators, critical care IV drips, and dialysis machines. While there is a significant learning curve, Claire notes fantastic collaboration and “can-do” attitudes among the staff.
Kris Ehresmann ’84
Director, Infectious Disease Epidemiology, Prevention, and Control
Minnesota Department of Health
In her role at the Minnesota Department of Health, Kris Ehresmann normally oversees a wide variety of infectious disease activities. These days, it is COVID-19 all the time. Her role in the pandemic response is to lead the operations branch. Her responsibilities include producing public health guidelines for various settings and directing “boots on the ground” work, such as contact tracing investigations of individual cases and cluster investigations into prisons, homeless shelters, correctional facilities, schools, places of higher education, and long-term care settings. They are working closely with Minnesota’s long-term care facilities to provide the technical assistance they need to address COVID-19, in particular the use of PPE, disinfection, and infection control issues.
“Public health is a ‘team sport.’ I am very fortunate to work with the most amazing, dedicated, hard working (and tired) team ever. Everyone’s goal is to do our best to serve Minnesotans and ensure they have the opportunity to be safe and healthy.”
In pivoting to her new role as part of the coronavirus response, Kris continues to rely on her ability to think on her feet, speak extemporaneously, digest a great deal of data quickly, and persevere — skills she was able to hone through her liberal arts education. Kris also regularly speaks to the media on behalf of the department’s work. A passionate Ole, she often needs to remind herself to remove her St. Olaf lanyard before press events.
John Goeppinger ’70
Retired Family Medicine Physician
John Goeppinger is a retired physician who specialized in family medicine for 36 years. Like many care providers, Goeppinger came out of retirement to help meet the needs of the COVID-19 pandemic. He volunteers for the CARE public clinic in Red Wing, Minnesota, where volunteer doctors provide telemedicine visits and medications for uninsured patients and help guide clinical care. Although his age places him in the “high risk” category, John wasn’t deterred. He has increased his service hours and now pulls up his lime squeeze green Ford Escape to the entrance so as to work semi-remotely.
“As I walked through the mess line in basic training, a sign reminded the staff to ‘Clean as you go, and garnish everything.’ Those seem like good words to live by.”
In addition, to his work with the CARE public clinic, John also volunteers with Hadi Clinic in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, where he has the opportunity to serve patients who come from all over the world — as close as north Minneapolis and as far as Liberia, Ukraine, and South Sudan. John was recently recognized for his efforts in an article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
Laura Guzman ’10
Minnesota Department of Health
Laura Guzman is a grants coordinator in the Division of Child and Family Health at the Minnesota Department of Health. Among her many responsibilities, her role typically includes managing a portfolio of nonprofit, tribal, and local county public health grantees who receive federal and state-funded family home visiting grants. Needless to say, her work has changed significantly over the past few months. After the outbreak of COVID-19, she was reassigned to conduct case investigations in Spanish with Latinx Minnesotans who tested positive for COVID-19.
“COVID-19 has shone a spotlight on long-standing societal inequities, as communities of color disproportionately bear the economic and health burdens of the disease. Our work requires us to not only stop the spread of COVID-19 but also address the social, economic, and political systems that leave some communities more vulnerable to its effects.”
She conducts the initial interview, provides information about isolation and quarantine, and collects their contacts for the contact tracing team. This work requires Laura to flex her empathetic listening muscles as well as her other communication skills. The folks she meets with are often sick, scared, and confused about what their diagnosis means, so she also acts as a trusted resource — providing accurate, science-based information about COVID-19.
Timothy Holtz ’86
Rear Admiral, Assistant Surgeon General, U.S. Public Health Service
Office of AIDS Research, National Institutes of Health (NIH)
As deputy director of the Office of AIDS Research (OAR) at NIH, Timothy Holtz leads a team that rapidly mobilizes and takes action to address emerging scientific and public health challenges. In the wake of the pandemic, his team has been focused on determining key research questions and the impact of the overall NIH research enterprise of COVID-19 disease in persons with HIV. Because information and data on the coronavirus is rapidly evolving, it’s expressly important that his team assesses the impact of COVID-19 on immunosuppressed populations. Most recently, OAR has collaborated with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to develop interim treatment guidelines for COVID-19 among persons with HIV.
“The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic presents an unexpected challenge, but it also provides opportunities for leveraging the NIH-supported HIV research platforms and the clinical trial networks in partnerships to tackle unanticipated research questions related to COVID-19.”
In addition to his work as deputy director, Tim continues to serve as a medical officer in the U.S. Public Health Service, a position he’s held for more than 20 years. He also is a founding member of Doctors for Global Health, a non-governmental health and human rights organization that provides health care for underserved populations in Central America and Africa. This spring, Tim was promoted to the rank of one star Rear Admiral, a status less than one percent of officers attain.
Ambele Judith Mwamelo ’16
Global Health Governance Programme (GHGP)
University of Edinburgh Medical School, Scotland
Ambele Mwamelo’s experience on St. Olaf’s Biology in South India study abroad program not only strengthened her interest in biology, but it also inspired her to kick-start her public health career and apply to graduate school. Ambele was first introduced to the GHGP, which researches how global institutions can better serve the health needs of people globally, while pursuing her master of public health at the University of Edinburgh. Now, as a researcher/affiliate with the GHGP, the work that she and her team are doing is contributing to the existing body of evidence about COVID-19.
“The past months have been challenging, as many of us have been affected both directly and indirectly. However, we need to remember to lead with kindness — keeping in mind that many people (including fellow Oles) are dealing with complex situations and ongoing outbreaks in addition to the COVID-19 pandemic. For those with the opportunities and capacity, this is a great time to contribute to our communities. Any action counts.”
Ambele’s work is currently focused on examining the COVID-19 response in sub-Saharan Africa, looking at countries such as Senegal and Ghana that are performing well, and distilling best practices and lessons learned. She believes that sharing critical research and scientific evidence about COVID-19 is crucial when addressing pandemics and other public health challenges.
Jennifer Nelson ’98
Medical Epidemiologist, CDC
Lieutenant Commander, U.S. Public Health Service
Jennifer Nelson has been deployed twice in support of the CDC’s 2019 Novel Coronavirus Response. Her first deployment took her to the San Francisco International Airport quarantine station, where she served as a quarantine medical officer and tertiary passenger screener. In these roles, she worked with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers to identify arriving passengers who needed additional health screenings prior to entry into the country and provided one-on-one traveler’s health communications to passengers returning from high-risk areas.
“Often you need to take a circuitous route to achieve your goals and dreams. Remain rigidly flexible and never give up.”
Jennifer’s second deployment was to CDC’s Emergency Operations Center, where she served on the Maternal Child Health Unit within the Community Intervention and At Risk Task Force. Here, her team focused on populations facing disproportionately greater risk for negative health outcomes from the COVID-19 pandemic, including children under 18 years of age and women who are pregnant or postpartum. She was able to use her pediatrics training to provide subject matter expertise on issues related to infant feeding in the context of COVID-19 illness, as well as conduct research to better understand health outcomes of infants born during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Love Odetola ’14
Ph.D. Student, University of North Carolina, Greensboro
Department of Community Health Education, School of Health and Human Sciences
As a Ph.D. student in community health education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Love Odetola teaches undergraduate students in global health and conducts research to explore how contaminated tap water impacts the health of pregnant women and young children. A few months before the COVID-19 outbreak, she was visiting homes in North Carolina to test tap water for 14 different contaminants. Although she had to pause these in-person visits in response to social distancing requirements, Love is now focused on collecting data virtually through phone calls and Zoom interviews and on maximizing existing water datasets.
“Social distancing is not synonymous with social isolation. Let us stick together, reaching out, encouraging one another, supporting each other. This pandemic shall pass. And, at the end of it all, if we support each other, we will realize that we have gone much further than we ever envisioned.”
In the midst of her shifting work, Love has also taken the opportunity to support various university faculty members who are working on COVID-19-related projects, including a faculty member who is looking at how COVID-19 has impacted the lives of nursing professionals. While the pandemic has been an adjustment, it has also been a time of growth for Love and has inspired her to explore new research methods that might have been neglected in the past.
Ian Pray ’09
Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) Officer, CDC
Ian Pray is part of a two-year fellowship program in applied epidemiology, which sends officers to health departments around the country to help them investigate disease outbreaks. EIS officers are often referred to as “disease detectives” and have been an important part of the national and global public health workforce since 1951. Ian is currently assigned to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, where he’s been working to investigate COVID-19 at meat processing plants, nursing homes, and other high-risk settings. It has been an incredibly challenging mission and a difficult time for everyone, but Ian feels grateful to be able to apply his training in such a meaningful way.
Melissa Rolfes ’06
Epidemiologist, Influenza Division, CDC
Melissa Rolfes supports analysis of surveillance data to estimate how much flu happens in the U.S. each season, designs and develops protocols to investigate flu outbreaks and pandemics, and leads a study looking at flu transmission in households. In the early weeks of the U.S. response, she supported the initial outbreak investigations on the West Coast, deploying CDC staff to help state and county health departments conduct contact tracing to identify people who were exposed to the early COVID-19 cases. As the outbreak grew in the U.S. and community transmission became more widespread, Melissa helped redirect many existing studies of flu at the CDC’s Influenza Division to focus on COVID-19 instead.
“This is a challenging time, and it’s hard not to get discouraged. But there’s an ethos, from Harry Truman, that has lined the halls of CDC, and I think it lined the halls of St. Olaf too; ‘It’s amazing how much you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.’”
As a result, she now leads several studies looking at community and household transmission of COVID-19. These studies are critical for understanding how and when COVID-19 transmits from one person to another. The CDC is also using these studies to further understand what families can do to limit the spread of the disease and how families and communities are economically, socially, and mentally impacted by COVID-19.
Eric Schilling ’99
Chief Engineer, Cardiac Resynchronization Therapy
More than 80 Oles work at Medtronic, a medical device company with operational headquarters in Minnesota. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the company has swiftly stepped up to the plate — open sourcing designs for ventilator products, using 3D printing facilities to produce face shields, shifting manufacturing priorities, and accelerating technologies that allow clinicians to serve their patients remotely. As chief engineer with the Cardiac Resynchronization Therapy Division, Eric Schilling and teams throughout Medtronic have been working on mobile apps that can transmit data from implanted cardiac devices to a cloud network of servers, allowing clinicians to remotely view key device and health diagnostic information. In some cases, sophisticated algorithms process that data to provide predictions of worsening heart failure or help classify heart rhythms. In addition, teams have been working on technologies that would allow field specialists to remotely participate in surgical procedures and remotely program implanted devices. Eric is now working harder than ever to make these features available for the benefit of COVID-19 patients, while also developing even better therapies and solutions for the future.
Peter Weissmann ’82
Primary Care Physician, Minneapolis Veterans Affairs (VA) Health Care System
Professor of Medicine, University of Minnesota
As a primary care physician in the Minneapolis VA Health Care System, Peter Weissmann’s daily routine was turned on its head in the wake of COVID-19. Instead of spending his days providing direct care and coordinating medical services for his regular patients, 600 veterans he has been following since he came to the VA in 2011, his clinical time is now mostly devoted to the Minneapolis VA’s new Acute Respiratory Clinic (ARC). Patients presenting to the medical center with any symptoms that suggest a COVID-19 infection are quickly sequestered in ARC, where they are evaluated by a team of nurses and physicians.
“I don’t expect that my day-to-day practice will ever be the same as it was before COVID-19. Our challenge will be to use that disruption to develop systems of delivering care that are better. Although I would never have wished this new illness on anyone, we can’t let this crisis go to waste.”
By using personal protective equipment, prompt isolation, and video technology, Peter and his team hope to provide appropriate medical care for patients while also preventing the virus from spreading throughout the rest of the facility or to themselves. Because primary care physicians usually find the greatest joy in providing their patients with continuity of care, this shift in focus has been quite an adjustment. While nothing will ever replace a face-to-face encounter, Peter and his team are finding that virtual care allows them to do much more than they had previously assumed was possible.
In a time of great need, our newest alumni are joining the health care field.
From the Class of 2020, 24 students graduated from the college’s nursing program, and many will be working in acute care, including at Mayo Clinic, the Veteran’s Administration Medical Center, and Abbott Northwestern Medical Center.
Pre-Med (medical, dental, optometry)
Six pre-med seniors have been accepted into medical schools that include Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine, Creighton University School of Medicine, University of Kansas School of Medicine, University of Nebraska College of Medicine, and Loyola University Stritch School of Medicine. One pre-dental student will attend the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry. One pre-optometry student will attend Pacific University College of Optometry.
Two Oles from the Class of 2020 are going into physical therapy, one at Mayo Clinic and the other at the University of Minnesota; two are going into exercise physiology — one is entering the master’s program in applied physiology at Columbia University, and the other is entering the master’s program in exercise physiology at St. Scholastica; and one senior is entering the master’s program in orthotics and prosthetics at the University of Washington.