Here is the eighth and final installment in our series sharing exceptional work by Alaska state employees during the pandemic. The State of Alaska has long been one of our closest and most reliable partners, helping to develop workforce housing, build and renovate domestic violence shelters, improve libraries and start from scratch a philanthropy for all of Alaska, the Pick.Click.Give program.
We close with the Department of Health and Social Services, which has been front and center during the pandemic. Other than the university system, HSS is the largest state agency with more than 3,500 employees who touch the lives of Alaskans from cradle to grave, protecting children and elders, preventing and tracking disease, and ensuring healthcare and residential care facilities are safe. Meet some of the employees and teams working to keep Alaska safe.
Investigating exposure to COVID
The Alaska Division of Public Health has a direct role in combating COVID-19, with the help of scientists, healthcare providers and technicians. The public health nursing team is led by Tim Struna, chief public health nurse; Sean Armstrong, deputy chief; and regional nurse managers Elizabeth Burton in Fairbanks, Sarah Hargrave in Juneau and Bridget Roughneen in Anchorage. The nurses investigate contacts of those who have been exposed. They facilitate community meetings, meet people where they are at and answer any and all COVID questions. As HSS puts it, they are the nurses that you want on the other end of the phone answering your question.
At the Emergency Operations Center, Rosa Avila, public health scientist, leads the data information team. How many new cases? Are hospitals filling up? When a data question comes up, she coordinates the response. Jobs changed almost overnight. Nurse consultant Tessa Walker Linderman, who normally works in substance misuse treatment and prevention, pivoted to manage airport testing sites for coronavirus as well as the travelers’ email inbox. As a true Jill-of-all-trades, she has now taken on the role of vaccine coordinator to make sure Alaska is ready when a vaccine is ready.
Tracking money and supplies
Standing up a response to the pandemic requires committed logistics support. In Anchorage, Heather Rogers tracks every financial transaction related to the pandemic and is quick to respond to questions. Sondra LeClair brings operations, logistics and finance together. She tracks the status of PPE and testing supply quantities. Karl Edwards manages all the receiving and shipment of supplies across three warehouses 24-7.
The Epidemiology Section, led by chief epidemiologist Joe McLaughlin, investigates cases and clusters, provides recommendations and guidance, and calms public fears with science-based, data-informed recommendations. They even answer the phone 24-7! Other team leaders include Louisa Castrodale, veterinary epidemiologist; Donna Fearey, a nurse manager; and two CDC officers, Kim Porter and Eric Mooring.
Every day, hundreds, even thousands, of tests
Public Health Laboratories are receiving and testing 1,200 to 2,100 COVID specimens a day. Testing happens seven days a week and is being led by microbiologists Theresa Savidge of Anchorage and Jayme Parker of Fairbanks along with Anchorage-based scientist Michael Stevenson.
Pharmacists solve challenges
Pharmacist Coleman Cutchins joined the Public Health Division in fall 2019 to work on decreasing opioid abuse. Then came coronavirus. He began helping to prepare hospitals and communities for an expected spike in cases. He worked on treatment protocols, guidelines, surge plans and transfer agreements. When that work was handed off, he became more involved in testing and has been affectionately named the “testing czar.” Alaska’s chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink, says: “He always has an eye for problem-solving, never seems to get flustered, and calmly and efficiently continues to build out testing around the state while at the same time keeping an eye on all pharmacy-related literature and treatment options as this pandemic progresses.”
Meanwhile, Erin Narus, Medicaid state pharmacist, ensured that Alaskans had access to medications during the pandemic. She addressed management of drug shortages, modification of refill and day supply limitations, prior authorizations, reimbursement methods and more. She’s been working for more than two years to enroll pharmacists as providers, which allows them to bill for professional services such as COVID testing and counseling. “Erin is a wealth of knowledge and a great mentor who continues to contribute to the betterment of our program,” said Renee Gayhart, Health Care Services director.
Keeping children safe in a pandemic
Foster parents even in normal times hold tremendous responsibility in caring for children in state custody. Now they’ve taken on additional duties and roles to keep children safe from COVID-19, dealing with new challenges regarding visits with the child’s parents, virtual schools, socially distanced play and more. Kim Swisher, the Office of Children’s Services regional manager for Western Alaska, helped to craft innovative ways to curb the spread of the disease through partnerships with Alaska’s tribes. Caleb Lovelace, OCS safety officer, and Danielle Milliron, safety supervisor, stepped up, too. They researched the latest epidemiology guidance, helped shape policy and procedure in areas such as cleaning of vehicles that transport children, secured personal protective equipment and helped train staff, many of whom visit children and families in their homes. They also secured contracts for coronavirus testing.
Reworking a multi-billion operation
In what seemed like an instant, the state’s $2.3 billion Medicaid insurance program and licensure offices had to rethink and reshape operations. Teams worked with tribal and provider partners to expand telehealth, modify caregiver requirements for those serving vulnerable populations, change pharmacy rules and more. They analyzed and researched options to provide the most effective, best value relief. The work included a number of “waiver” applications allowing a detour from normal rules. Overseeing it all were division directors Renee Gayhart, Health Care Services; John Lee, Senior and Disability Services; Gennifer Moreau-Johnson, Behavioral Health; and Shawnda O’Brien, Public Assistance; as well as Medicaid plan coordinator Courtney King. “We had to create a whole new healthcare delivery system,” said Adam Crum, health and social services commissioner.
Lynne Keilman-Cruz, chief of quality in the Division of Senior and Disability Services, stepped up to serve as defacto division head when Director Lee was immersed in the Emergency Operations Center. She coordinated and led numerous webinars with service providers and advocacy agencies explaining changes and led the division to shift to telework ahead of most of the state workforce. Susan Dunkin, who coordinates regulations and publications for the Medicaid program, ensured that important messages were posted daily in real time to inform providers, Medicaid beneficiaries and the public. Gayhart noted that “Susan is one of those people who has the amazing skill of taking extremely dense and detailed material and putting it in terms for the general public to understand.”
Safety in hospitals, nursing homes and assisted living
Inspections of health facilities and care homes are more important than ever, and they can’t be done through telework. Craig Baxter, program manager for Residential Licensing, heads a team on the frontlines overseeing health and safety at 725 assisted living homes, answering hundreds of questions from families and providers, and doing it all with a kind demeanor. “They work tirelessly into the evening and on weekends to track positive COVID cases and ensure that proper procedures are followed,” Gayhart said. Matthew Thomas, manager of Health Facilities Licensing & Certification, heads the team responsible for 175 health facilities including hospitals and nursing homes. All these inspections check for infection prevention and control measures.
A $750 million response
Financial and technical teams took on work they never expected, too. Marian Sweet, deputy director of Finance and Management Services, is an integral part of the team tracking over $750 million in state and federal COVID-19 response dollars. In Human Resources, Sophie Lager coordinated a hiring plan to ensure a quick turnaround for the Division of Public Health to bring on the people needed. Rob Johnson, business applications manager, was instrumental in building a new IT system for contact tracing and led an IT team onboarding hundreds of contact tracers to help Alaska root out COVID. In Juneau, procurement specialist Susan Jabal continues to coordinate and expedite COVID-related procurement requests.
24-7 public health messages
Behind the scenes, even before the world knew what to call this virus, Elizabeth Manning, the department’s communications manager, was on the frontlines of COVID-19. In late January, she joined the first weekend phone calls. She was at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport as 201 passengers on a repatriation flight made it home to the United States from Wuhan, China. She made sure the public had the most up-to-date and accurate information about the event. That was just the start. She leads a team of nine full-time staff members and transitioned them all to telework at the same time they were inundated with questions about COVID. She coordinates information 24-7 for the Unified Command and connects with community and healthcare public information officers around the state. The department says Manning is one of the many DHSS workers behind the scenes who may not ever receive the recognition they deserve. She responds that it is a team effort. Communications Director Clinton Bennett said: “We cannot picture battling this pandemic without her.”
Others have stepped up too. If you’ve read the FAQs posted on the state’s COVID-19 web feature, you’ve seen some of what Laura Russell has been up to. Russell, project coordinator in Commissioner Crum’s office, manages the questions emailed to the state, helps get answers out to the public, and helps to write the health mandates.
It would take a book to detail all that the Department of Health and Social Services is doing to help Alaska through. While it’s not surprising that state health workers would be called to action during a pandemic, the depth and breadth of the response is remarkable. These employees and all the unsung heroes working for the State of Alaska deserve recognition — and a heartfelt “thank you!”
About the Unsung Heroes series
Rasmuson Foundation President and CEO Diane Kaplan recently asked State of Alaska commissioners to highlight some of those whose efforts to adapt and respond stand out for going above and beyond, often in ways not seen by the public. This series is the result. Previous stories showcased the departments of Transportation, Administration, Fish and Game, Commerce, Military and Veterans Affairs, Natural Resources and Revenue. Find all the stories here.