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The pandemic spurred a total reorganization at the Philadelphia Department of Public Health.
Its new crisis unit was designed to reduce barriers between government agencies and allow them to act more quickly. Since early March, the team has played a role in every part of the city’s COVID-19 planning, from quarantine sites to the surge hospital to autopsies to contact tracing.
You can read more about that reorganization here. Below, meet 15 of the key staffers leading Philly’s coronavirus response.
Dr. Steve Alles, incident commander
As Philly’s disease control director, Dr. Steve Alles has worked through H1N1 flu, Ebola, Zika and other, smaller outbreaks. But he’s never worked harder than right now in his role as incident commander of the city’s coronavirus response. “This is so different because we know this is going to be with us for a while,” he said, adding that many senior staffers in his division work 12+ hour days, seven days a week.
Villanova resident Alles, 54, said he’s proud of how city government restructured: smoothly, quickly and as a united front. As a result, “Our health system hasn’t been overwhelmed,” he said. “It’s managed.”
A self-proclaimed fitness buff, Alles said he hasn’t had time for his normal early morning workout routine and has packed on 10 lbs since pandemic talk first kicked up at the office around mid-January. Working up to 80 hours a week, Alles said his toughest personal problem right now is finding a work-life balance.
Desarae Bradham, pandemic social media
Behind every great institution’s trendy Twitter feed is a person hoping to actually connect with their target audience. At the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, that job belongs to 27-year-old Desarae Bradham.
She was tapped to become Philly’s pandemic persona on social media, moving over from her position as a communications and policy coordinator in the department’s STD division. You might be familiar with her work. In a viral Health Department tweet that’s been retweeted more than 4k times, Bradham, flipped a popular meme featuring rapper Future texting a long lost lover into a coronavirus warning.
“That was my biggest accomplishment,” she said. “I”m not even lying, because they kept saying how the African American population [was] becoming the most affected, but I feel like the messages weren’t really getting across. And me being young, me being Black. I was like, ‘Alright, there’s a certain way you have to word things.'”
The New Jersey native graduated last year from Temple with a master’s in community health, and initially took a city job as a disease intervention specialist helping to curb the spread of HIV. “This probably sounds weird,” she said, “but I’ve always been obsessed with sexual health and decreasing STD rates.”
Joani Schmeling, call center
Joani Schmeling was forced to become something of a jack of all trades when the pandemic entered Philadelphia in February. She was moved from her position as immunization education coordinator to lead the city’s pandemic call center, one of the first and earliest established lines of communication about the virus. She oversees about a dozen current employees from around the department who staff the 14-hour-a-day helpline.
Michigan native Schmeling, who moved to Philly for grad school at Drexel, has experience leading the city’s response to a disease outbreak. She helmed the 2019 effort to quell hepatitis A in Kensington, managing personnel hosting vaccination clinics and providing educational info.
Schmeling, 31, has still been traveling into the office, and said that’s actually been one of her favorite parts of the whole experience.
“I’ve really established and created better relationships and friendships with my coworkers that I didn’t have before,” Schmeling said. “Like, we’re all here. We’re all just taking it one day at a time together. We laugh about the crazy things that kind of come our way. And those are kinds of things I’ll take away at the end.”
Dr. Palak Raval-Nelson, food protection
When you call 311 to report a business operating in violation of the city’s stay-at-home shutdown orders, it’s Dr. Palak Ravel-Nelson’s team that comes out to investigate. Since March 18, they’ve fielded 877 complaints. In approximately 72% of those cases, business owners received an emailed reminder of Mayor Jim Kenney’s order, Ravel-Nelson said.
In pre-pandemic times, pest control, lead remediation and food inspections all fall within the Environmental Health Services division, where Ravel-Nelson is the first woman of color director.
The gig often involves long hours and weekend work, but Raval-Nelson said that comes with the territory. “During the Papal visit, I worked 14 straight days,” she said. Even as the division director, Raval-Nelson has been on the ground performing some of those inspections, where she’s developed an empathy for city residents and business owners. “[D]oing my job with even more kindness, because so many people are suffering,” she said, “I think that’s the hardest part.”
Jessica Caum, operations logistics and planning
Jessica Caum began her professional life as a writer, before pivoting and earning a master’s in public health from Drexel. The 47-year-old native of Warrington, Pa., has been with the city’s public health preparedness division for nearly a decade.
It’s hard to be totally equipped for an event like the COVID-19 outbreak, but Caum came close. Just before the pandemic struck, she was revising the city’s pandemic and influenza plan, and helped lead a mock bioterrorism training in the region.
Now, as she manages the city’s COVID-19 response plans and staff training, Caum said securing protective equipment while expanding testing capabilities has been the biggest challenge. “We know this has to happen, but it’s been very challenging due to the supplies,” she said. “Knowing what you need to do and not being able to do it is very hard and very frustrating.”
From the frontlines of the pandemic, South Philly resident Caum said her biggest worry for the immediate future is the prospect of reopening the city.
Dr. Claire Newbern, epidemiology
A former Philly resident, Claire Newbern lives in New Zealand, and had returned to the U.S. for two family funerals when the pandemic struck. The health department needed seasoned epidemiologists who knew the ropes — and since she wasn’t flying back any time soon, she accepted the charge.
Newbern has tracked outbreaks before, including listeria and H1N1. When it comes to the coronavirus, she’s leading data monitoring, processing and creating those sharp visualizations that the department has rolled out in the last few months.
The hardest part for this infectious disease expert? Juggling family and work. “This is more challenging because we’re working all the time, every day,” said the 48-year-old Newbern. “My staff too. A lot of them have family, a lot of them have young kids. We also need time away, it gets stressful and distressing, and it’s hard to manage that.”
Dr. Kristen Feemster, infection control
Dr. Kristen Feemster remembers when talk of the pandemic first landed with a boom in her workplace. She and her team had to discuss whether to close schools. “That was a big one,” she said. “Even being in public health, it was a surprise, even for me. It was quick.”
From there, the infectious disease physician took the reins of the infection control arm of the city’s coronavirus response.
“It’s a little anxiety provoking,” she said of her new role, where she has to balance making the right call and limiting possible risks. Feemster first joined the Health Department in January 2016 as head of the immunization program. She still does work implementing immunizations but there’s now a laser focus on COVID-19, too.
When COVID-19 cases get to a point where it makes sense, Feemster will help lead the city’s contract tracing efforts. This second phase of the pandemic response is Feemster’s biggest worry. Her release has been exercise. “Being able to go out and run has been a lifesaver.”
Emily Waterman, state/county liaison
Emily Waterman is balancing two jobs. On one side is her work coordinating hepatitis C care and prevention for pregnant women. The other duty: fielding every Philadelphia-specific request that comes in from the state-run COVID-19 hotlines.
The 29-year-old South Jersey native had just earned her master’s in public health from Drexel when she heard the first bit of office chatter about the coronavirus. “The timing was very ironic,” Waterman said. “I think you can study about a pandemic or epidemics and public health til you’re blue in the face, but you never know what it’s going to be like to actually respond to one until it happens.”
Incoming calls from the state range from doctors seeking info, organizations looking for guidance and regular concerned Philadelphians. That ultimately feels the most gratifying for Waterman. “It’s been rewarding when you can talk to somebody, hear their fears, and talk them down and talk them through it,” she said.
Danica Kuncio, isolation and quarantine
Quarantining at a hotel might sound fun compared to your standard at-home digs, but Danica Kuncio said the people sleeping at the city’s Holiday Inn site need a lot of support. “It sounds like a vacation to a lot of us,” she said, “but in reality, I think it would be difficult for anybody.”
Kuncio helps keep the place running, staying in constant communication with other city agencies. Normally, 34-year-old works as the health department’s viral hepatitis program manager. Among her usual clients, Kuncio said the pandemic has made things even worse. People who use drugs are more likely to develop hepatitis, which overworks your immune system and leaves you vulnerable to other illnesses.
“There’s already a Hepatitis C epidemic among people who use drugs,” Kuncio said. “It’s not fair that a pandemic will disproportionately impact them.”
The biggest challenge for the Fitler Square resident? Rejecting people who are still too sick to be admitted, since the site can’t offer medical care and they could put other residents at risk. “Saying no is the hardest part of the job,” Kuncio said.
Dr. Jeffrey Hom, surge facilities
This March, Jeffrey Hom had to pivot from dealing with one epidemic to another. As the medical director for the health department’s division of substance use prevention, Hom is familiar with the stakes of a disease that claims thousands of lives.
In his coronavirus-related work, Hom oversaw the opening of the Liacouras Center surge hospital facility. It was a particularly high-pressure job: the 37-year-old Rittenhouse resident was tasked with establishing a high-quality health care facility…inside a basketball arena…in just two weeks. Hom is grateful the center shut down after accepting only a few patients.
“None of us wanted to have the need for a surge facility, but we wanted to be prepared based on what we’d seen in Italy and New York City,” Hom said. “However challenging, the consequences of not doing so and having no place to care for patients would have been tragic.”
He’s glad for the experience, because if the city sees a second surge, or perhaps another pandemic down the line, they’ll be ready. “Regardless of whatever the next public health crisis may be, if we can draw on those connections moving forward, we’ll be in a better position to respond to them,” Hom said.
Mica Root, outreach
Mica Root got into public service from the ground floor. Her first city gig was as a lifeguard during the summer of 2013 at O’Connor Pool at 26th and South. Before that, Root spent years building her own nonprofit. But she wanted to transition to public work, so she got the lifeguard job, and became so obsessed with Philly public pools that she started a popular blog about them.
Now in pandemic outreach for the health department, she understands perhaps better than anyone why pools won’t open this summer — but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a downer. “It’s what’s necessary, obviously,” said Root, 41. “But I’m very sad about that.”
Root transitioned to her current work from her regular role in chronic disease prevention. Now, she’s translating official government communications into digestible takeaways, especially those destined for distribution in Philly’s African American and immigrant communities.
“There’s so much need, and so much opportunity and responsibility right now,” said the Passyunk Square resident. “We should be doing 25 times more than we have the capacity to do.”
Justin Harlem, PPE
Since the pandemic started, Justin Harlem estimates he’s worked about 13 hours a day, seven days a week. On Sundays, he works from home. But the rest of his time is spent in Philly’s emergency operations center, coordinating the acquisition and distribution of PPE.
With nationwide shortage of protective masks for healthcare workers, getting more has been a constant uphill battle. Formerly a state and federal policy advisor for the health department, Harlem now keeps a bird’s eye view of Philly’s entire hospital system. He leads a PPE-sourcing unit, identifies and contacts manufacturers, negotiates for materials and tells them which hospitals need more supplies the most.
“Every county in every state is competing for these things,” said Harlem, who lives in Northern Liberties. “The list is endless. It can be tough in that we can’t provide what we would like to provide to these facilities.” Even through the exhaustion and the desperation to do more, Harlem said he’s glad he can help the city right now.
“I may not love how much we send out,” Harlem said. “But I know we certainly do as much as we can with what we’re able to acquire.”
Amber Tirmal, non-healthcare congregate settings
During the pandemic, Amber Tirmal has shifted from making sure kids get their vaccines to organizing quarantine sites.
She’s been working primarily with people who are experiencing homelessness, developing policies and procedures for the Holiday Inn Express and Fairfield Inn quarantine sites. That means the Drexel alum and Bucks County resident is working with city departments she’d never worked with before, like the Office of Homeless Services and the Department of Behavioral Health.
Tirmal said her job now entails figuring out complex issues with many moving parts — from helping decide at what point people are ready to move from hospital to hotel to figuring out how the city should manage families that need isolation space.
“Although I think the quarantine site is imperfect, it does make me feel good that people who might otherwise have nowhere to go have somewhere that’s relatively safe, and they’re not experiencing homelessness and COVID-19 on the street,” Tirmal said.
Dr. Kendra Viner, special populations
Normally at the helm of a 35-person opioid response team, Kendra Viner has had to deploy half her staff to work on the coronavirus. They’re helping distribute buprenorphine inside prisons — a program that has required total reimagining due to social distancing. They’re also managing the Holiday Inn quarantine site, and running a mail-based naloxone program that has seen a “huge surge,” Viner said.
The intersection of drug use and pandemic response has taken creativity to coordinate. It requires a 24/7 operation.
“We’ve done some day-long shadowing events to follow along with the staff who are there at Holiday Inn and how they’re engaging with people,” said Viner, 44. “We’re trying to visit each person one by one to do wellness checks, assess their needs and make after hours phone calls.”
Dana Perella, surveillance
As the surveillance lead for the city’s COVID-19 response, Dana Perella, 43, oversees a team of people who track the virus, day in and day out. Even she was shocked at how quickly it blanketed the city: “We went from fewer than 50 cases to over 200 cases in a 5 day period,” said the 20-year veteran of the department.
Perella, a Chester County native, leads a crew of about 30 people who investigate outbreaks and help manage data. Lately, the focus has been on high-risk congregate care settings. In the near future, they’ll be focusing more on contact tracing, viewed as a key component to quelling the virus once daily infections drop to manageable levels.
How can Philly re-open its economy with seeing major adverse consequences? These virus trackers will help determine the best approach.
Perella has been around long enough to know how to handle the mistakes. Said the surveillance head: “Things will happen. They don’t always work out…but this is our bread and butter. We’re here to respond. We’re trained for this.”