A Challenging First Year For MCPH Administrator

Julie Lynes has worked at Mills County Public Health since 1990, but nothing she learned or experienced over her first 30 years in the office could have possibly prepared her for what she was about to encounter when she took over as the agency’s administrator.

Lynes assumed her duties as MCPH administrator in January 2020, replacing Sheri Bowen who was retiring.

“I got into this position and about the third week of January is when all of this talk was coming about COVID,” she recalled during an interview last week. “You look at it a year later and it’s kind of interesting. I remember we put together the ‘14 Days To Slow The Spread’ information. That was the big document we were putting out – we have 14 days to get on top of it (COVID-19). We had no idea it wasn’t going to be 14 days to slow the spread. We’re a year later and we’re still trying to get on top of it.”

One of the primary responsibilities for any public health agency is emergency preparedness, so by the time COVID-19 had reached the shores of the United States in early 2020, Lynes and other public health leaders had already turned their full attention to the coronavirus.

“January, February, March – we just did a lot of planning with community partners,” Lynes said. “Our job is to push out education. The state educates us. Then, our job is to get it out to all of our partners.

“I feel like that first quarter of my job, I spent a whole lot of time making connections with people I hadn’t had to work with close before. All of a sudden I became very connected to the emergency manager, the city and county government, the healthcare partners we have and school sector. It was an opportunity to talk to everyone about what COVID is. What does it look like?”

By the time the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Mills County in early April, it was all hands on deck. Other MCPH priorities and programs were put on hold.

Common thinking early on in the pandemic was that virus activity in Iowa would peak in late April or May and go away when temperatures warmed up in the summer, but that didn’t happen. The coronavirus has consumed Lynes and her staff for more than a year now.

From educating the public about social distancing and contact tracing to the importance of wearing a mask and avoiding large gatherings, the coronavirus has created countless challenges for MCPH over the past 12 months.

“I feel like early on when we were first getting cases in April, people were wanting knowledge and they were wanting direction,” Lynes said. “Our phones were lit up. People wanted to talk to a nurse – especially if they had been in close contact or had tested positive. People were desperate to talk to a nurse.

“Then, as time went on and on, I saw my nursing staff kind of turn into glorified telemarketers. Far into that process, nobody wanted a call from a nurse. If my nurse calls you, she’s going to tell you that you were a close contact and you can’t go to work for 10-14 days depending on the nature of if. She’s going to give you all this restrictive guidance and it came to the point where people weren’t very receptive and those phone calls can get harsh. People no longer wanted the guidance. I think that was hard.”

As time went on, Lynes sensed that the public was becoming more skeptical about the guidance and information public health officials were sharing. The coronavirus also became a political issue during a highly contentious presidential election year.

“Some people, it got very hard to contact trace and others wanted it,” she said. “It was almost this polar thing – some people are adamant mask wearers who get very angry at people who don’t wear masks and you have the other people who say it’s violating their personal freedom.”

Lynes noted that she was working in public health in 2009 when the H1N1 virus surfaced, but back then health officials attempting to educate the public didn’t have to deal with the barrage of conflicting information that’s been shared about COVID-19 on social media.

“The way news got out was not the same then,” she said. “I feel like with this disease, you’ve got Facebook inundated with opinions – some from highly credentialed people. You can find opinions all over the place. You really can find any news you want to support how you already think.

“In grad school, I had a professor who said you have to be leery of statistics because you can use them to prove any point of view that you want. I think COVID has been a little that way and that’s just another confounding factor. You even see it with vaccines.”

Overall, Lynes believes Mills County’s response to COVID-19 has been consistent with other communities in Iowa and around the nation. The vaccination process is now well under way and will likely last through the summer.

Lynes said she and fellow MCPH staffers look forward to the day they can turn their focus back to in-person programs and services that have been placed on pause or scaled back during the pandemic. Programs like diabetes prevention and foot care clinics for seniors, educational programs in the schools, Parents as Teachers and homecare visits.

“A lot of our services have really been disrupted because of COVID, which has been good from one point of view because it’s been all hands on deck to respond to COVID and now vaccine administration,” she said.

One major initiative on Lynes’ radar is facilitating the Community Health Needs Assessment and Health Improvement Plan, a task MCPH is required to take on every five years. It’s a comprehensive project that involves participation from several sectors of the community, including business partners, government, schools and parents.

“We look at Mills County from a health perspective – physical health, mental health, emotional health, financial health,” Lynes noted. “All sectors come together, work in sub-groups and work it out – producing a community health needs assessment.  After that, we have to do a health improvement plan – here’s what we identified as strengths and needs.”
Lynes, who grew up in the Omaha-Council Bluffs metro area and graduated from Harlan High School, took an interest in healthcare at an early age. She was born with some complicating medical conditions, including cerebral palsy.

“I wore corrective shoes and from a very young age, I had this tie to the healthcare system. I got physical therapy and all of these services. I was fascinated by it,” she said. “The healthcare people that I worked with were always so tentative to me and always so positive. That inspired me – I wanted to do that. I wanted to be one of those people.”

After graduating from Harlan, Lynes earned an associate’s degree in health science from Brigham Young University before doing an internship at a hospital, a setting she didn’t particularly enjoy.

“A hospital is an environment all of its own. I did not enjoy it,” she said. “I thought, I’m more interested in people and I’m more interested in the wellness part than the sickness, hospital part, so I got a bachelor’s degree in education and thought I’m going to teach. “

Lynes and her husband had two children when she completed her bachelor’s degree from Buena Vista University. As she neared completion of her degree, a homemaker supervisor job opened up at Mills County Public Health. She did some research on the position, applied and was offered the job. She graduated on a Sunday and started her new job the next day.

“I loved that job,” Lynes said. “That job was overseeing all of the homecare aides and going into homes and meeting with an elderly population. At a young age, for the first time, I was really exposed to this elderly population. I was completely taken back by their wisdom and perspective.”

Later on in her career, Lynes added additional duties as a parent educator and eventually became a family centered services supervisor.

“I think the reason I have stayed so long, every couple of years what I’ve done here has kind of shifted and changed,” she said.

Lynes was very happy and content with her job overseeing the agency’s family centered services department – which assists families with stability issues, adolescent health and mediation.

“Then Sheri announced she was going to retire. I was not happy about that. I had worked with Sheri for many, many years,” she said. “Sheri had a style of leadership that allowed me to work very autonomously.”

May will mark Lynes’ 31st year at MCPH. Although she admits her first year on the job as administrator wasn’t exactly what she expected it to be, she’s looking forward to taking on new challenges and initiatives that will improve the overall quality of health of Mills County residents. She’s particularly looking forward to facilitating the Community Health Needs Assessment and having a role in developing the Health Improvement Plan

“I love looking at our population from a wellness perspective and from a health perspective,” she said. “What can we do to make people more physically active in Mills County? What can we do to make eating healthier easier for our community? What can we do to get kids to stay in school?

“That very human perspective and changing behavior from like a 30,000-foot view. I love that overlook perspective and figuring out what we can do better and how to do it. Setting those goals and putting plans into action, that will be fun.”


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