What is an epidemiologist? Routt County will retain separate, full-time role post-pandemic
As Routt County’s first full-time employee with the distinct title of epidemiologist, Nicole Harty is just as comfortable delving into complex databases as she is conducting disease investigations with local individuals.
Harty was hired in September 2020 as part of the county’s pandemic boost to the public health department, but she will stay on post-pandemic to help track the health status of the community and provide data for the five-year Routt County Public Health Plan developed in 2019.
“I am really a big proponent of using data to help us work smarter and not harder, and we have a really great opportunity as a newer department to build data systems that are built on 21st century data principles that will carry us into the future,” said Harty, who earned a master’s degree in public health with a focus on community and behavioral health at CU Anschutz Medical Campus.
Public health became a stand-alone Routt County department in June 2019. Before that, the public health role lived at nonprofit Northwest Colorado Health, with Dr. Brian Harrington serving as the county’s public health medical director for the past 12 years.
Harty said her permanent role as epidemiologist/data manager in a smaller, rural western county is rare with that specific title, but epidemiology is part of the work of many public health officials. Across the state, 14 regional epidemiologists cover larger rural areas, including a Western Colorado Regional Epidemiologist based in Mesa County.
Peter Manetta, with the Colorado Association of Local Public Health Officials, thinks Routt might be the smallest county in the state with its own permanent position titled epidemiologist. Manetta said an epidemiologist helps to track and advise on issues ranging from food-borne to chronic illnesses, from zoonotic diseases, such as rabies, to social issues, such as gun violence. The work focuses on data collection and clear interpretation to help community organizations make policy and programming decisions.
“Increased knowledge around the science of epidemiology and public health methods is on a whole a good thing,” Manetta said of this pandemic silver lining. “Much of what public health does was not widely known before the pandemic, and most of the best work people still don’t know about. When things are going right, people don’t see the work if there is successful protection.”
Fritha Morrison, who earned a Ph.D. in epidemiology from Tulane University, has been a part-time epidemiologist in Routt County since August 2020, in addition to her role in research about quality of care in chronic conditions for Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Before February 2020, Morrison explained to friends out of simplicity that she worked in research, but now her title of epidemiologist and the role of public health have vaulted to the forefront of public understanding.
Morrison describes the heart of epidemiology as “having a question you want to answer and figuring out the best, most accurate way to measure that” and “working to quantify health issues in real-life settings.” Morrison moved to Steamboat Springs six years ago after marrying a local man, and when the pandemic hit, she was excited to contribute locally in her profession.
Harty said her professional thought process is, “You ask good questions and keep following the thread of that answer to the end.”
Routt County Public Health Director Roberta Smith, who earned a master’s degree in public health also at Anschutz, said that earlier in her career, people confused her epidemiologist duties with dermatology. She always explained her work does not relate to the epidermis but rather to the study of data in populations.
The local epidemiologists emphasize public health is more than the COVID-19 pandemic. On a long-term basis in Routt County, the public health department will explain the implications of health statistics to help organizations that tackle historically predominant local issues, such as substance abuse, mental health and suicide, and maternal and child health, Smith said. That future work will include the creation of a Routt County Health Data website, or a type of dashboard of county health indicators to share statistics ranging from chronic disease prevalence to radon rates, Harty said.
Smith said the department’s team currently is supported financially through Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment grant funding for pandemic response through the end of 2023.
Some experts say the growth in and dedication to epidemiology and public health jobs during the pandemic is akin to the inspiration of individuals who signed up for the military after 9/11.
“When the pandemic hit, I just really felt like I could and should be in the fight more,” Harty said. “I needed to be doing something with local public health. COVID was a huge challenge that I wanted to be a part of because I felt like I could make a difference.”
To reach Suzie Romig, call 970-871-4205 or email sromig@SteamboatPilot.com.
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