The COVID-19 pandemic has been a public health crisis of historic portions, with the
phrase “frontline workers” becoming a large part of the daily lexicon.
And the Environmental Health Program at Western Carolina University has contributed its fair share of professionals to
those ranks at the local, state and national levels.
“Any given day of this profession can change, based on events that affect public health,”
said Geraldine Riouff, assistant professor in the Environmental Health Program. “One
day you are all set to conduct a health inspection at a nursing home or food service
vendor and a gas leak occurs that affects the water supply. Or … a crisis of pandemic
proportions occurs and you find yourself in the field providing guidance to facility
operators, by being the voice for the public when they would otherwise not have one.”
In addition to being an instructor in the program, Riouff also is an alumna. She has
extensive experience in the public health sector, working with departments in Wake,
Chatham and Jackson counties after earning her in degree in 2000.
“The four main ingredients for this practice is to possess scientific-based knowledge,
integrity, trust and good communication skills,” Riouff said. “WCU’s Environmental
Health Program readies students for this ever-changing field of practice by providing
them with the foundation and tools necessary to rise up to the occasion, protect public
health on any given day and face the challenges that come their way.”
In Winston-Salem, Shannon Maloney is part of an effort to house members of a homeless
population that has either tested positive, appear symptomatic or have been exposed
to someone who has tested positive. A 2018 Environmental Health Program graduate,
she is a registered environmental health sanitarian with the Forsyth County Health
Department, but currently is serving as a shelter manager.
During a break from her temporary assignment, Maloney reflected on her new role. “In
our studies at Western, we learned a lot about many different subjects,” she said.
“That has helped me in my work today. Although I am generally doing inspections of
restaurants, I had the confidence and knowledge to switch to something out of my normal
work environment. I also want to point out that (this field) generally does not get
much credit. I want to tell my colleagues, don’t be discouraged, no matter how small
your contribution to helping your community is. You are still contributing and that
is extremely important.”
The pandemic has highlighted the need for environmental health professionals as a
needed part of preventing diseases, a vital role in protecting public health, she
Victoria Boyer, a 2018 program alumna, agreed.
“We have been working diligently over the past two months to ensure that the health
and safety of our associates is our number one priority,” said Boyer, a 2018 graduate
who is the environmental health and safety manager at Resistoflex, a McDowell County-based
plastic-lined piping products supplier. “We have taken measures that include mandatory
face masks at all times, hired an extra cleaning crew to disinfect high-traffic areas
and touch points throughout the day, restricted visitors to essential personnel, reduced
the number of on-site office employees, and continued communication and reinforcement
of social distancing, which all began at the end of March.
“This is an unprecedented time and uncharted territory for everyone, so we are continuing
to flow and adapt as new guidelines are implemented in correlation with our government.
It has been difficult navigating as there is no clear end in sight, but we will continue
to push through until there is,” she said.
The encompassing and global reach of the pandemic has highlighted how everyone is
a stakeholder in public health, said Jessica Otto, an environmental health officer
with the U.S. Public Health Service working with the Food and Drug Administration
in College Park, Maryland. “Everyone has something to bring to the table and is essential
to the development and implementation of the plan,” she said. “That’s what we’re doing
at the federal level, consulting with stakeholders, anticipating needs and developing
tools and strategies in concert with sister agencies, state and local health departments,
trade and professional associations, and consumer groups so we can mitigate the risks
together as one team, to protect the workforce and the public.”
People are living through a once in a 100-year public health event, and environmental
and public health professionals have to be flexible and responsive, and confident
that the theoretical knowledge gained through training, and the real-world experience
from previous events, is enough to make sound decisions and make an impact.
“Pandemic history, strategy, response and recovery is a basic foundational part of
every public health curriculum, but that doesn’t mean we’ve been able to apply that
knowledge in real life,” said Otto, a 2004 WCU graduate. “This isn’t a local or regional
event like we are used to responding to. This isn’t an epidemic in some far-flung
part of the world. This is affecting everyone worldwide, which presents a new set
of challenges and opportunities like no other public health emergency I’ve responded
WCU is one of only 28 environmental health degree programs accredited by the National
Environmental Health Science and Protection Accreditation Council and one of 31 by
the Association of Environmental Health. It is recognized as a leading program by
industry professionals in the nation.
“The profession is committed to improving public health by protecting the very things
that are vital to life ― food, air, shelter and water ― whether it’s on a day-to-day
basis or during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Kim Hall, program director and assistant
professor. “The COVID-19 pandemic has created a public health emergency and highlighted
an existing need for environmental health practitioners. Graduates of WCU’s Environmental
Health Program are on the frontlines of responding to the pandemic and are working
from many angles to slow the spread of the virus.”
These are the practitioners who are conducting testing and contact tracing campaigns,
evaluating trends in disease data to inform policymakers and responding to outbreaks
in congregate living environments and occupational settings to stop disease spread,
Hall said. The work also includes moving forward, as steps are taken to reopen segments
of society. Environmental health professionals are providing guidance to restaurants
and other businesses to ensure safe reopening, overseeing worker safety in essential
businesses and educating the general public on ways in which they can help slow the
spread of the virus.
“Most importantly, our graduates are engaged citizens who have a strong passion and
desire to serve their communities. They are competent and proficient scientists who
successfully apply their technical knowledge to prevent disease and disability, respond
to public health emergencies and promote public health through education,” Hall said.
“These are the professionals whose work has always been vital to the improvement and
protection of public health and whose work will continue to be vital as society navigates
to a ‘new normal’ in the wake of COVID-19 pandemic. The need is greater now more than
ever for this profession and environmental health practitioners, and WCU’s Environmental
Health Program will continue to meet those needs.”
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For additional information, contact Hall at 828-227-2654 or firstname.lastname@example.org.