“We get reports of different diseases which are of interest around the world, and this was flagged as something interesting going on in China in January,” said Drew Dycus ’16M, MPH, recalling how the Bucks County Department of Health became attuned to the beginnings of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. As a public health preparedness program coordinator, Dycus is tasked with helping Bucks County manage the response efforts and investigating the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
One of the primary goals of the Bucks County Health Department is tracking the spread of the disease, the number of cases, recoveries, and deaths. As of late May, the Department of Health has recorded nearly 5,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases within Bucks County.
Though the COVID-19 pandemic has caused an unprecedented strain on the nation’s healthcare system, Dycus’ studies have prepared him to assist the public during times of distress. While enrolled at Arcadia for his graduate studies, Dycus learned de-escalation techniques through his dual degree programs of Public Health and International Peace and Conflict Resolution. His mediation skills and epidemiology methodologies were honed through his internships, one in which he worked with students at a youth center in Kensington, and the other an extended internship at Drexel University’s Center for Public Health Readiness and Communications. During his internship at Drexel, Dycus investigated the public health risk effectiveness through modeling different scenarios and analyzing what issues would have the largest risk impact on the state’s healthcare infrastructure.
To Dycus, the key to managing the recent influx of worried phone calls received by the Bucks County Health Department during this stressful time is to provide a line of quality communication with the public.
“People have very strong feelings about the current situation in a lot of different directions, so it’s really helped to have that background to work with people and talk them through it,” said Dycus, elaborating on the importance of careful listening and reassurance. “For those phone calls, we make sure we're coming to a good solution for those individuals, or they at least have a better perspective on what we're doing.”
Another important function of the Health Department call center is to collect information about the pandemic by contacting every citizen of Bucks County who has contracted the virus. As the program coordinator for public health preparedness, interviewing the public about where they possibly contracted the illness is a crucial piece of information for Dycus and his colleagues. From these phone conversations, his team can assess the level of risk that an individual poses in passing the disease to those around them, and help break the chain of contagion within the community.
One of the biggest challenges epidemiologists like Dycus have faced during the COVID-19 pandemic is the difficulty of identifying every case due to the possibility of asymptomatic carriers of the virus.
“Whether it's this illness or other illnesses, very mild symptomatic transmissions or asymptomatic transmissions makes this much more difficult,” said Dycus. “With ebola, a person is at risk for transmission when they have a measurable fever, so that's an easy line to know when someone is a risk for transmission. It's a lot harder when it's a virus like COVID-19 that's very nebulous in its symptoms, and some of them very mild. In general, a lot of cases are very mild.”
As of June 5, Bucks County will move into the “yellow phase” of Gov. Wolf’s Pennsylvania phased re-opening plan, which eases some restrictions on work and social interaction. Through this, the Bucks County Health Department will continue to closely monitor the COVID-19 outbreak and impact on Bucks County residents.