Morgan Ash sums it up perfectly: when most folks think of “frontline workers” during the COVID-19 response, the immediate thoughts are of those people responding to the pandemic. Less attention, however, is paid to those hundreds of Houston Health Department employees operating in the support roles.
“People working the COVID-19 call center, contact tracers and case investigators, and even administrative positions like procurement. We had to buy a lot of stuff in a short amount of time when the pandemic started,” she said. “All these HHD employees continue to fight COVID-19 in their unique roles.”
These are the workers Ash and HHD wanted to highlight in the “Unsung Heroes of the Pandemic” video series the department has produced. The five-part video production introduces the audience to those workers who work behind the scenes to help combat the virus in professions not readily thought of or overlooked.
“The pandemic was and is like nothing else the modern world has experienced. The Houston Health Department was unwavering to its commitment to Houston’s public health,” Ash said.
The videos, produced and directed by Ash, HHD communication services manager, focus on the following divisions: HHD Lab, communications/public affairs, health education, contracts and procurement, and business management. HHD leadership nominated the divisions due to their critical and demanding roles.
The business management and contracts and procurement divisions had to process hundreds of emergency purchase orders as the department’s capacity for testing and later vaccinations expanded, Ash explained.
“Oftentimes at the beginning of the pandemic, many essential items were extremely difficult to find, and operations would’ve ceased if they couldn’t purchase items like face masks, gloves, and N95s. However, their persistence to find a way and strong teamwork made it happen,” she said.
Other divisions demonstrated their skillset that oftentimes are overlooked. For example, the communications team was on call around the clock to keep the media informed of what the department was doing to fight COVID-19. That included responding to media requests from around the world in multiple languages, Ash said.
“Our job is to make sure that every message we send out to the public is clear and easily understandable. Houston is a diverse city, so we do our best to translate as much as we can to other languages to improve health inequities,” she said.
Reporters needed accurate, clear messaging to relay lifesaving public health messages. Social media played a major role in getting the information out to communities as well, Ash said. “It took the whole communications team to keep people informed of testing and vaccination sites, and how to keep their family safe and healthy during the pandemic,” she said.
Ash also said communication strategy continues to play a vital role in combating the pandemic. “Even as the guidelines and recommendations change, our information remained as consistent and accurate as possible,” she said.
The lab and health education divisions also earned their stripes during this hectic time, even though they might also be considered among the frontline heroes. Lab Manager Rob Sealy said his division is an unsung hero because the day-to-day work they do is mostly behind the scenes.
“The lab performs tests and provides results to more public-facing programs, like the mobile collection sites and city clinics,” he explained. “I’m not sure if the average person stops to think about what actually goes into producing that test result they received.”
Sealy noted the lab facilities transformed from operating on a tight budget to receiving a lot of grants which helped it become a leading figure in tracking the virus.
“Our city leaders have always been appreciative of what we do and have provided whatever support they can,” he explained. “It’s just a fact of working in the government that tough decisions must be made when it comes to budgeting. I don’t envy that. But it has been nice to have the funds to really design and implement an infrastructure that will continue to support the city for many years to come.”
The shared personal experience of the pandemic ultimately began connecting the workers, as Ash noted how everyone interviewed had their own story of how COVID-19 impacted their lives.
“Some were heartbreaking – like the public health educator who lost her husband to COVID-19 right before getting vaccinated,” she said. “And some were inspiring – like the microbiologist who was just trying to see if they could even test for the virus, and the very first sample came back positive.
“Yet even though COVID-19 took so many lives, HHD employees met each challenge directly and problem-solved their way through it, and in the process made history,” Ash said.
Sealy said fostering relationships during this critical time was key and helped with understanding each other’s roles.
“It’s been extremely important to clearly communicate our needs to the other departments supporting our efforts. When everyone is in a rush, it’s easy to think, ‘Why can’t you just push this through for me?’" he said. “You have to step back and realize that each of these groups has its own set of rules and regulations, and by doing their due diligence they are making sure we are good stewards of these funds.”
Sealy said HHD, like the City of Houston itself, is filled with heroes.
“There are so many people that worked hard throughout the pandemic to ensure that life goes on. I’m not sure that the lab deserves that recognition any more than anyone else,” he said.
Sealy also offered this for everyone working to combat the pandemic:
“It has been a marathon, not a sprint. We have asked a lot of our employees and the cream has risen to the top. I encourage staff to take some time off when things are in a lull, take that vacation, recharge their batteries, and be ready for whatever comes at us next.”