Last December, Jen Freiheit was named director of the Kenosha County Division of Health. She earned her doctorate in the Department of Administrative Leadership at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. Freiheit has a strong commitment to developing research that impacts public health practice.
To hear more, tune in to Happenings Q&A on Tuesday, June 16th at 12:30 when Jen Freiheit joins the conversation on AM1050 WLIP and streaming live online at wlip.com.
Q: What made you want to enter the health field?
A: I was interested in environmental health and then switched my undergraduate study to being a high school health teacher. It was a field that could impact many people in a positive way.
Q: As the Director of Heath you have a very important job to help keep everyone safe, can you tell us about your background on dealing with other pandemics?
A: I entered the public health emergency preparedness realm right after 9-11 by working at the state health department under the public health emergency preparedness grant. I have been tied to this field ever since. I assisted in the H1N1 response of 2009, Measles of 2008, and Legionella of 2010 among many other emergencies .
Q: What are your goals as the Director of Health?
A: My goals are to increase the public health presence and services for Kenosha County residents while moving toward health equity for those most in need.
Q: What will the new normal look like after Covid-19 crisis is over? And what will be the long term effects of this?
A: The long term effects will be that people are much more cognizant about the spread of novel viruses and understand the public health implications and what needs to be done to prevent the spread and protect themselves.
Q: What are your feelings on people flocking to the bars once the lock down was over, and how can people stay safe but still socialize?
A: Any time we see or hear of gatherings, public health prepares for increased spread and potential for more positive cases. We understand how much people want to return to normal (we in public health want nothing more!) but we must be safe in socialization, remaining distanced, wearing masks, and continue using virtual platforms for communications.
Q: Tell us a little about your education from the University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee
A:The public health doctorate at UWM was not formed when I began my PhD program. I chose the Urban Education-Administrative Leadership route, which allowed me to study public health, while learning from so many other experts in other fields that I could apply to public health in unique ways.
Q: How did your brief stint in Milwaukee as the top health deputy prepare you for you current roll?
A: My time at the Milwaukee Health Department showed me how passionate people are for health equity and was a good jumping point for being able to become a health officer.
Q: We’ve noticed that the Kenosha county area has seen a seemingly great amount of asymptomatic cases of coronavirus, people that seem to have no symptoms, yet carry the virus! Is this something Kenosha county has seen more than other places and how are we dealing with that?
Q: From your perspective, how well do you feel Kenosha county has done to flatten the curve, do you feel like we’re doing well and seeing a potential end soon in our area or should we be ready for a second wave?
A: Kenosha County did an amazing job to flatten the curve and the data proved it. People adhered to the Safer at Home Order and were near 100% compliant with our health department staff when they called to do disease investigation or contact tracing.
In public health, we prepare for the worst and hope for the best. We are planning for a second wave, whether that occurs in June or next December. We hope that it does not occur, but if it does, we will be ready.
Q: How do you feel like Kenosha County has done with social distancing and adhering to the recommendations and guidelines set forth by our officials?
A: I do see that most people are still taking this virus seriously and are being vigilant with mask wearing and putting measures into place to be safe.
Q: Can you describe your mind set before you give your weekly health update?
A: I am always looking through all my data to find something new to present or something to present in a fresh way. I also want to take the opportunity to educate the public about public health operations and their health department. Public health so rarely gets the opportunity to be understood. We may not get this opportunity again, as we are usually in the background running smoothly until there is a problem. We love that the world is now speaking our language and understanding public health functioning.
Q: Do you feel the city/county was prepared properly for Covid-19 & the shut down?
A: The government employees were quite prepared, especially the health department, as we have emergency response plans that include pandemic response. We have trained and exercised annually. Relationships were built that are certainly helping out now. I do not think any of us were quite prepared for such a worldwide shut down and the effects of that.
Q: How many Covid-19 testing sites are available in the kenosha area?
A: Right now there are the 2 sites at the hospitals, the KCHC site at Gateway, and the National Guard at Central High School. Next week the Kroger Health testing site at the Pick N Save will return for two final weeks. CVS is also testing now.
Q: How do you balance building awareness instead of building fear about Covid-19?
A: It is a very fine line to walk. We want people to take this seriously. It is not a government conspiracy. We were also one of the first counties that had proven community spread, our first case was not attributed to travel or close contact with a positive. And with a 26% asymptomatic rate among our positives, one can assume that potential positives exist within any setting.
Q: What is a typical day like in your position?
A: A typical day, right now in the middle of a worldwide pandemic, is back to back virtual meetings, phone calls, helping to answer questions from residents and businesses. The work begins the minute I wake up and does not end until deep in the night. There is so much to do and so little time to do it. There is a lot of pressure to protect the residents, put containment measures in place, and educate everyone transparently while sharing data and other communications. It is a very heavy job.
Q: What are some of your goals you want to accomplish as the Director of Health?
A: I would love to see a broader scope of services that our residents need and a higher focus on health equity serving the un and under-insured in Kenosha County. I would love to see us continue our progressive and forward thinking leadership among traditional health topics as well as new and emerging threats.
Q: Why did you choose to come work in Kenosha?
A: It sounds hokey, but something called to me that this was the right position at the right time. I had not intended to leave Milwaukee or even to become a health officer, but when I saw the position announcement, something larger guided me that this was the place I could best apply all that I have to offer.
A: We do not intend to, but if we need to alert the public as part of our contact tracing, and we need their help in containing the virus, we may do so.
Q: How do you get the information to know what businesses have had employees test positive for Covid-19?
A: We get this information when we do disease investigation as we must obtain all close contacts of a positive case in order to contain the virus and/or an outbreak situation. Businesses are often also sharing what information they have in order to assist in our efforts.
Q: Will you also let the public know if any city officials or police officers test positive for Covid-19?
A: We would only let the public know if it is in the best interest of protecting the public. For example, if a police officer is positive, we place that officer in isolation so that they are not out in the community shedding the virus. We then find out who all they came in close contact with during their infectious period. We contact those people and place them in quarantine to keep them from spreading the virus. If we have received all of the contacts and all were compliant with our isolation and quarantine requests, then the virus is contained and there is no other threat to the public.
Q: Will the public get a breakdown by industry for positive covid employees?
A: Not necessarily. Obtaining accurate information on this is hard because we are on the border of another state who collects and tracks their data very differently. We have many people that live in our county and work outside of our county and vice versa. Clear data is not always available.
Q: When will we hit the peak for Covid-19?
A: I wish I had a crystal ball to predict this. We are tracking data daily and including that on the county hub website for the public to track the gating criteria and follow along with where we are as a county.
Q: How prepared are Kenosha hospitals for a upswing in new cases?
A: Our hospitals are VERY prepared. They can handle quite a big surge if needed. We have not even scratched the surface yet for what they can handle.
Q: When and wear should people be wearing a mask?
A: Public health continues to put out very strong recommendations that all should be wearing masks when out in the public.
Q: Do you think Kenosha/Wisconsin will have another shutdown in the fall/winter if cases sky rocket?
A: We in public health are preparing for this, the worst case scenario, but many conversations would need to be had with many partners before anything like this would occur again.
Q: If there is anything you’d like to add? please feel free to add any info you want to get across with this story
A: We want to thank the community for being so safe, understanding, and supportive of public health efforts as our team is working non-stop to keep you safe and reduce the spread of this novel virus.
Editor Jason Hedman
Interview by Donny Stancato
Photos, including cover, by Samantha Jo Vaughn, Bird of Paradox Studios
Q. What are your thoughts on how the schools should reopen in the fall?
A. We’re still waiting on guidance from DPI (Department of Instruction) about that, but it’s certainly going to be a different look. There still might be virtual classrooms, there might be a separation within classrooms. Students might be having lunch within their classrooms instead of the cafeteria. I think each school will have to plan on their own spaces with what their regulations are going to be and how that new school is going to look. They also have to prepare for the possibility of positive cases in their classroom. If that happens, then for two weeks, do they move over to work in a virtual classroom and everybody goes home? We are definitely looking at these different scenarios.
Q. Your responsibilities are obviously stressful and must consume your time and energy; is there something you do for yourself to recharge?
A. I love to go hiking with my family.
Q. Last week, seven business names were released after current employees tested positive for COVID-19. Do you see this as a trend going forward?
A. No. In fact, that was not something we normally do. However, when we have trouble contact tracing in a place like a bar, it can be difficult. Not everybody’s using a credit card so its not like we can get a credit card list of everybody that was there that night. We have to do a public call to say, “Hey, if you were here, watch your signs and symptoms. Go get tested.” We try to alert people that if they’re going into a facility where people aren’t masked or people are shoulder to shoulder that they’re assuming a level of risk. So, certainly the message we are trying to get out is not about those seven businesses, it was stressing that Covid-19 is everywhere.
Q. How can you tell the difference between seasonal allergies and COVID-19 symptoms?
A. You can’t necessarily. COVID-19 is presenting in all different kinds of ways. Earlier this year, we weren’t even looking at headaches Now about 30% of people who test positive are experiencing headaches and 20% are presenting chills. So the symptoms keep changing all the time. It’s really hard for us to be able to track whatever symptoms there are with allergies and we’re worried about that second wave in December during flu season and it’s very hard to tell the difference between the flu and COVID-19 right now without a test.
Q. Is there some kind of guidelines set prior to the COVID-19 crisis team, or was there anything in place preparing for something like this?
A. Since right after 9/11 we’ve had emergency preparedness and response plans, so every health department in the country essentially received federal dollars to do this planning right after 9/11. With H1n1 in 2009, our pandemic influenza plans greatly enhanced, so that ramped up our pandemic influenza plans then we tested a lot of things. We’ve had mass vaccination plans in place for almost 20 years, so we’ve done exercises, we do trainings annually with our incident command system. Many health departments, including Kenosha, have been doing intense planning for 17 to 20 years.
Q. What have you learned that will help you and the city be better prepared to address the next issue?
A. I think we’ve learned how flexible and resilient the health department staff can be which has brought us together as a stronger team, even though we’re completely isolated and we’re not working together in the office. It’s made us capable of ramping up quickly on virtual platforms and learned to quickly adjust based on the situation.
Q. What does the public misunderstand about the role, responsibilities, and authority of the health department?
A. I think in general the public doesn’t know the health department even exists. If they don’t know we exist, many people don’t know what we do. We do everything from helping children exposed to lead poisoning, to restaurant inspections, to beach monitoring, to our clinics where we do immunizations and STI testing in contraception, and drug tests.
We have an agreement with the court system where people drop their urine so we can make sure they’re drug-free. We have our own laboratory. There’s so much that the health department does to maintain the public’s health but we’re always silent behind the scenes and nobody really knows we exist until there’s a problem.
Web extra content brought to you by
Editor – Jason Hedman
Interview by – Donny Stancato
Photographer – Samantha Jo Vaughn
Check out her studio Bird of paradox
723 – 50th St. Downtown Kenosha