By Hannah Fryczynski
It’s no secret that for public health professionals everywhere, this last year and a half has been challenging, stressful, daunting, and at times disheartening. The pandemic has taken a toll on Americans in every way possible, including life expectancy and long-term physical and mental health outcomes. It has tested public health agencies’ capacity and resources and revealed all the ways in which public health organizations do not have the support and funding they truly need to respond to the nation’s most important health issues. In more recent times, the challenge has become fighting for the idea of public health itself – to promote and protect the health and wellbeing of all. Public health programs are critical to a nation’s health, whether that be at the national, state, or local level.
Especially in a time like the pandemic, responding to the varying needs of those affected by COVID-19 is imperative — through patient treatment, contact tracing, outreach and education, outbreak response, mental health resources, and vaccine clinics. To be in the public health profession during such unprecedented times is to acknowledge and fight existing barriers and respond to our most vulnerable populations, even when our work is challenged from all directions.
I joined the Immunize Colorado CO-mmunity Corps VISTA program in October 2020 and began my year of service at Garfield County Public Health. There are about 60,000 people in Garfield County, with around 30% of the population identifying as Hispanic. The rural county is bordered by Pitkin, Eagle, and Mesa counties, and we have a large working class in the service and hospitality industry. Towns within the county have differing political and cultural values that impact the work Garfield County Public Health does, specifically related to COVID-19 response. The largest barrier that continues to exist in my county is COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy. As CO-mmunity Corps members, our responsibility is to promote education and access to immunizations through the development, implementation and evaluation of immunization activities in the counties we serve. Vaccine hesitancy is the most substantial barrier I have faced in trying to uphold this responsibility, but it has also become my strongest motivator in conducting outreach in the community.
I have taken on various roles in the department, from contact tracing to co-managing our COVID-19 vaccine equity project, to presenting at the Public Health in the Rockies conference. Although COVID-19 response was not included in the original position description, there were capacity issues at my local public health agency when I joined that could not be ignored, and so I jumped in and began case investigation and contact tracing. Case investigation gave me valuable perspective on the diverse community of Garfield County. I learned more about epidemiology in half a year than I ever had before, and took on greater responsibilities working with the Epidemiology team.
With the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines came the need for outreach and education, and I was more than excited to take on a new role within COVID-19 response that directly related to the goals of being a CO-mmunity Corps member. Each week, our Hispanic Outreach Coordinator and I would host a Facebook Live dispelling myths about the vaccine and answering common questions. We began to create fun and engaging animated videos that promoted important messaging for current public health guidance and information on our social media for both COVID-19 vaccines and routine immunizations.
More recently, there has been an increased need in the community to continue education on the COVID-19 vaccine, especially for healthcare workers hesitant to receive one. I created an educational presentation on the vaccine (including its safety, the science behind it, how it was made and how it works) and have been able to present at multiple long-term care facilities and other organizations in the county with the help of my bilingual colleague. The objectives of the presentation have been to provide a space for people to ask any questions they have about the vaccine and share educational resources, with the overall goal of planting the seed of encouragement for those who have been resistant to the idea of getting vaccinated.
Being a VISTA during the COVID-19 pandemic has been a unique journey; it has shown me how important it is to be able to roll with the punches and pivot to respond to the highest needs of the community. One of the main goals of AmeriCorps VISTA service is to empower individuals and communities, and with the ever-changing landscape of the pandemic, I have continued to go back to this goal time and again. To remain resilient and put service for others above all else has been a grounding mantra. With limited knowledge working in a rural setting, this past year has provided me the opportunity to learn how to reach a community that faces different barriers to accessing essential health services and education. We used the resources available to us to reach as many people as possible and fulfill the goals of the CO-mmunity Corps. This year has demonstrated the need to remain empathetic to community members, even when the pushback to public health interventions feels like it is overpowering the work we are trying to accomplish — especially as AmeriCorps members. As service members, we do not choose the communities we serve; instead we work to promote and improve the health and wellbeing of every person, regardless of their race, socioeconomic background, political affiliation, or location.
I’d like to extend a special thank you to Danielle Dudley and Sara Brainard, who were always open to my ideas and encouraged me to take on the projects I proposed. And a big thank you to Rachel Kappler, Dana Wood, Brisa Chavez, and Yerania Moreno, who worked with me to achieve many of the goals I set out to accomplish throughout my year. My time at Garfield County Public Health has been nothing short of an amazing learning experience and one that I will never forget as I continue on my path in the public health field.
Hannah Fryczynski is an Immunization and Outreach & Education Coordinator, on assignment with Garfield County Public Health through the CO-mmunity Corps AmeriCorps VISTA program.