Perhaps the best defense against a molecular threat like the COVID-19 pandemic, so small it goes unseen by the human eye, is a force that also goes unseen. Those society defenders against pandemics are our local public health units, located all across our state. And they are staffed by trained, dedicated professionals like Daphne Clark, public information officer and protection team leader at Upper Missouri District Health Unit in Williston.

“I think the best description of local public health that I have ever heard is that when we are doing our jobs well, no one sees us,” Clark said. “It is only when we fall short that we are seen. Other emergency responders fill important roles that are more visible. Local public health responders are not as visible, but we do fill an equally important role, especially during a public health crisis.”

Clark has worked at UMDHU for more than 16 years. She started her career in public health as a general environmental health practitioner, then moved into becoming an emergency environmental health practitioner. In 2008, she began in her current position. She describes her day-to-day work requirements as promoting and public messaging for her health unit, which serves four counties – Divide, Williams, Mountrail and McKenzie – in the northwest corner of the state. Additionally, she is team leader for the UMDHU emergency preparedness program and environmental health programs.

And her work duties have changed completely since the state’s first reported case of the novel coronavirus on March 11. “All of my time now is spent on COVID-19 response,” she said. “I spend most of my day connecting with partners to work on emergency plans or answering their questions about response.”

UMDHU is one of 28 local public health units in the state of North Dakota. Seven of these units are multi-county health districts like UMDHU and serve wide swaths of geographic terrain. Clark said that UMDHU has an especially strong working relationship with the Southwestern District Health Unit, which serves eight counties directly south of their unit. Along with six tribal health units, these public health districts and departments are the “boots on the ground” for the North Dakota Department of Health and are largely responsible for local response efforts.

“We are the ones in the communities who are answering questions and helping to guide local policies,” Clark said. “We have had my team from UMDHU out fit-testing emergency response partners. Fit-testing is necessary for people before they can wear the N95 masks we hear about that medical and emergency response personnel must wear to protect themselves. Our team has fit-tested around 1,000 emergency response personnel. UMDHU also has staff that are assisting the NDDOH Division of Disease Control with COVID-19 case and contact tracking.”

Fit-testing N95 masks for emergency responders, so that they can be protected from the same threat we are all facing today, as well as doing contact tracing of essential workers and supporting them with guidance from NDDoH and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are parts of all the essential, behind-the-scenes planning and implementation of emergency preparedness and response plans during a crisis like this one. And public employees, such as Daphne Clark, go largely unseen during their efforts. Which is the way they feel it should be, but it can still sting, all the same.

“I’m not going to lie though, when I see other emergency responder agencies getting food deliveries, I do think ‘I like donuts, too,’” Clark said with a smile.

Recently, the UMDHU partnered with several local and state agencies to conduct drive-thru COVID-19 testing at the Elbowoods Memorial Health Center in New Town. Roughly 282 people were tested on Saturday, April 11, and Clark said that she believes she will remember participating in this cooperative effort for the rest of her life.

“We have worked with our partners in the New Town area for years,” she said, “However, having as many partners there working together was something phenomenal to see and be a part of. As many people that were there, everyone took their assigned task and went to work and within a couple of hours, 282 people were tested. It was a great example of what can be achieved when partners and communities come together to work towards one goal.”

Clark urges every North Dakotan to pay attention to this serious situation, and to get their information from reputable sources. “I would encourage them to look to their local public health, North Dakota Department of Health and CDC for information on how to protect themselves and their communities.” Also, she recommends that we all continue to work together to protect as many lives as we possibly can.

“This has the potential to go on for a while,” Clark said, “and it is a high stress situation, so I keep encouraging people to approach others with kindness and graciousness. There will be mistakes made, and we need to look past those to continue our partnerships together to have the best results for our communities.”

  • Article written by Kelly Hagen, NDU Communications. Photo submitted by Daphne Clark from the New Town testing event.