McKnight Reflects On 1st Year Leading McLean Co. Health, COVID Response
Starting any new job in the midst of a pandemic is a challenge, especially if you are responsible for managing public health.Jessica McKnight took over as administrator of the McLean County Health Department one year ago today (Jan. 27), just days after the state of Illinois reported its first coronavirus case.
Since then, COVID-19 has killed more than 420,00 Americans and upended our way of life.
McKnight said it became clear last winter, after regular briefings with the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) and the Centers for Disease Control, the coronavirus would be far more encompassing than any public health crisis she had to prepare for previously.
“That’s when it started to sink in that this was going to be bigger than something that was isolated in another part of the world,” she said.
McKnight soon realized tasks she came to the department to do, such as strategic planning and goal setting and learning the ins and outs of each of the department’s programs, would have to wait.
They are still waiting.
“It almost feels like when we get done with the pandemic, when we get to move on, I almost need a reset for my second first day,” she said.
McKnight said it also took getting used to being the public face of a health crisis that had consumed so much attention in the media. For a time, the health department did daily virtual news conferences that featured McKnight and other health department or county staff. WGLT broadcast most of them live. The department now does them weekly.
“It really hadn’t sunk in how visible I was to the community, going places out in public and being recognized. That’s not something in a county this big that happens that often if you are new,” said McKnight, adding wearing a mask has afforded her more anonymity, but some people recognize her voice now.
Respect for public health
McKnight said the state and community are far more supportive of public health than at her previous job-- as a county health administrator in Missouri.
She said local health departments there got little guidance from the state and more push back from the public.
“It’s more than just a lack of direction, public health is not very well respected there,” McKnight said of her time in Farmington, Missouri where she was director of the St. Francois County Health Center. “I said even when I first started here, this community wants to be well.”
McKnight noted a former colleague in Missouri quit her job after their family received threats over a local mask mandate.
McKnight said her grandmother inspired her to pursue a career in public health and some habits were passed down to her.
“I just remember she always kept a journal of the weather, the temperatures, what was on the news,” McKnight recalled.
Calling herself a “spreadsheet nerd,” McKnight said she has started keeping an ongoing record of coronavirus data that will help her to one day chronicle this historic moment. She just wished she had started it sooner.
“We are living history right now. I had not been keeping good journaling of what we have been experiencing, and thinking I wish I had been,” she said.
McKnight sort of chuckles at the thought of planning during a pandemic, adding even the best planning gets upended by new developments almost every day. She said flexibility has been one of the strengths of the health department.
“You can have a plan and it looks like it’s going to be wonderful, but I think what we have done well here is to continually assess what we are doing and make adjustments to make constant improvements,” she said.
McLean County has fared better than other Illinois counties when it comes to COVID-related deaths, but that has slowed arrival of the county’s vaccine supply.
IDPH gave the first vaccine doses to counties with the highest death rates. McLean County is still lagging behind most counties in Illinois with .63% of the county’s population fully vaccinated.
McKnight said the county’s weekly vaccine allotment from the state is based on population.
“We’ve been talking with the Illinois Department of Public Health, letting them know we can take more, so I’m hopeful we can start seeing more vaccine,” she said, adding she expects distribution will ramp up once the federal government approves new COVID vaccines that are currently in clinical trials.
“Hopefully, we’ve got some more vaccines potentially close for their emergency use authorization, so hopefully we are going to see the allocations coming to our community increase,” McKnight said.
She isn’t willing to predict when an "all clear" for the pandemic might come, noting she has postponed her own vacation twice.
“I’m hopelessly optimistic that I’ll be able to take it, but knowing realistically, looking back at the 1918 pandemic, it was several years before things really went back to normal,” McKnight said.
And, she said, even when traveling becomes safer, it’s clear that masks and other public safety tools will be a part of everyday life for some time to come.
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