By Liz Shepherd
WARSAW — On March 6, the Indiana State Department of Health confirmed Indiana’s first COVID-19 case.
Since that day, Indiana has had more than 70,000 positive cases, with health departments throughout the state working extensively to monitor the virus while providing communities with the latest updates. Staff with the Kosciusko County Health Department are in frequent communication with one another to discuss any new studies related to COVID-19, as well as what needs to be accomplished locally to help slow the spread.
Teresa Reed, RN, KCHD communicable disease nurse; and Nichole LaLonde, KCHD epidemiologist, are two of the key people working to help slow the spread and educate the community.
“The only reason Nichole and I can focus as we do is because of the help and backing of others,” said Reed. “Before the ISDH announced it was taking over case investigations and contact tracing, there were several who we were training to help with those tasks. Even during the start-up of the ISDH call center doing the case and contact work, Sandy Vogel (prenatal coordinator) and Lisa LeMasters (RN, FNP) were helping place calls to be sure our residents were contacted. Even in the building we work in, we have had amazing help from the management team, maintenance and the receptionists.”
LaLonde is from the Warsaw area and graduated from Warsaw Community High School. She received her undergraduate degree, as well as a bachelor’s and three associate’s degrees, from the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne. During her senior year of college, LaLonde took an interest in public health and decided to study at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where she received her master’s.
Prior to working at KCHD this year, LaLonde worked as an intern with the department for a semester. In that internship, LaLonde assisted Reed with case investigations and reportable diseases. Currently, LaLonde is working remotely while she is in graduate school.
“I got really lucky being able to work with Teresa because she’s been here so long and she’s been able to go through the Hepatitis A outbreak,” said LaLonde. “She just has so much wisdom and everybody has been really supportive.”
“She’s a very competent young lady and she’s really been a lifesaver,” said Reed about LaLonde.
Reed started her nursing career in 1984 as a nurse’s aide and has been continuously employed in nursing ever since. She has a degree in healthcare administration and has worked at the health department for 12 1/2 years.
While working as an epidemiologist with the health department, LaLonde keeps track of data she receives from multiple places regarding local COVID-19 cases.
As part of her job, LaLonde has been responsible for assembling COVID-19 data that is then released to the media and the public. She also is the one who prepares the many charts that accompany the updates.
“I love looking at the numbers and keeping track of all of the trends, like where some sources are,” said LaLonde.
A typical workday for Reed includes constantly being on a computer or phone in one capacity or the other, answering questions and investigating diseases.
“A lot of times I’m gathering information, examining that information and figuring out what to do about that information,” said Reed. “Sometimes that also takes a lot of research.”
Even though the work can be mentally taxing at times, LaLonde enjoys studying the numbers she receives while also keeping track of trends.
“I just love what I’m doing right now, regardless of how exhausting it is,” said LaLonde. “I have a lot of fun with it. We try to be as transparent as we can, and that’s just started to take a toll on me mentally because the community just wants such specific things and they don’t understand why we can’t get it or why we can’t release it. And I do regularly read the comments (online.) If I see something that someone wants, I try to give the community that. I try to accommodate, but it’s a little more trickier than I ever imagined it would be.”
“It changes so fast, it’s like the sand shifting under your feet,” said Reed regarding COVID-19. “A lot of our phone calls are very specific on a situation and focus on addressing ‘What do I need to do about it?'”
In their free time away from work in the midst of a pandemic, LaLonde enjoys playing golf and doing paint-by-numbers, while Reed enjoys spending time with her pets and tending to her garden.
“When I get home, I’m pretty much done,” said Reed. “My husband is a very sweet man and he takes care of me, so I’ve continued to eat and sleep on a regular basis.”
Employers and employees alike have reached out to the health department with questions; both LaLonde and Reed encourage the public to contact the department at (574) 372-3517.
“We are here to help the public,” said LaLonde. “We are here to protect your health. If you have a concern or a question, that’s what we’re here for.”
“If they have significant questions, we want to help them,” said Reed. “We’re always here.”