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Lubbock's public health director reflects on two years of COVID

Katherine Wells and Raider Red
City of Lubbock Health Department
City of Lubbock Health Department Director Katherine Wells with Texas Tech University Mascot Raider Red at the Civic Center vaccination hub in February 2021.

This week marks two years since the coronavirus was first detected in Lubbock. Since then, over 93,000 Lubbock County citizens have tested positive for the virus, and 1,300 have lost their lives. There have been countless heartbreaks and triumphs in that time.

One of the people leading the city through it all has been Lubbock Public Health Director Katherine Wells. She recently visited the Texas Tech Public Media studio to reflect on the city’s pandemic story.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Sarah Self-Walbrick: Katherine, let’s go back to the first few months of 2020. It was inevitable, but Lubbock was actually one of the last American cities of its size to detect a case. Before we had that first confirmation, what was going through your mind and how were you preparing?

Katherine Wells: Probably around February or March, when we started seeing cases in the continental United States, it really became real for our local health department. Looking at what other cities were doing, and trying to figure out what those best practices were when there were so many unknowns.

And that was really the biggest thing. Like, we didn’t know how transmissible it was, how severe illness could be, how severe illness could be treated, how it’s transmitted - we didn’t know if it was surfaces or airborne - and really looking at what other cities were doing.

We started running tabletop exercises every day. So, a group of health department staff would come together, we would look at different scenarios and kind of walk through what that would look like if it was here in Lubbock. Who are key contacts? Who should we be notifying? What media outlets should we be talking to? How would we do a press conference? So really looking at all of those different things so we would be ready when that first case showed up. We knew it was coming at that time.

Self-Walbrick: Exactly. And then we got those first few cases and the situation just really got worse from there. What were some of the challenges? Especially in those early months when, as you said, we were still learning so much about what this virus was.

Wells: Like I said before, the biggest challenge was really the unknown. We didn’t know that incubation period. We didn’t know how infectious individuals were. Like being in a room together, would that transmit the virus? We didn’t have a lot of personal protective equipment. So a lot of our nursing homes, places that didn’t have to do regular infection control like a hospital would, didn’t have large supplies of personal protective equipment, the masks the gowns, the gloves. Not knowing how to treat it - we didn’t have any antivirals or any medications, but even just what kind of palliative care needed to happen in the hospital, how much fluids people needed, oxygen, when was the right time to be admitted? When would someone go on a ventilator? Those were all big questions that public health, the medical community, did not have answers to at that time.

Self-Walbrick: We’ve now seen multiple variants of the virus and the situation changed with each one. Talk to us a little bit just about those issues and kind of navigating new territory almost every time that you know, we were told that there was a new variant afoot.

Wells: So from the Public Health Department, every time they say there’s a new variant, it almost feels like you’re starting over again. Because we have to go back and answer those basic public health questions about how transmissible it is, whether or not we’re going to see a lot of illness, whether or not we’re going to see severe illness. Whether or not both the vaccines and the monoclonal antibodies, those treatments, are they going to be effective against this new variant?

So it’s again, trying to figure out those unknowns and then communicate that quickly to the concerned public. As soon as a new variant hits the national news, our phone lines increase, the number of people wanting vaccines increases, the number of media calls. It just all starts over again.

Self-Walbrick: Vaccines becoming available was a game-changer. Your department and others really mobilized to get those shots in arms locally. How did the city’s vaccination hub come to be? And why did that model work?

Wells: One of the really positive parts of having that vaccination clinic was that was actually an established city plan. For the last 20 years, the health department’s had plans on how to respond if we ever had to do mass vaccination or a mass prophylaxis of the entire community. And the idea was always to use the Civic Center. We didn’t ever expect to use it that long. But we thought the Civic Center would be an ideal place that people would feel comfortable. Everybody knows that is where most people have been to at least one event in their lifetime. So it’s a place where some people can come and gather.

Some of the other things that worked really well were staff. After every clinic, they sat and met, even though they were exhausted. And we talked through what worked well, what needed to be tweaked, where did the line get jammed up, or where did we let too many people in at the same time.

So we always reworked that clinic until we got to this kind of perfect clinic that was really able to process 3,000 people through that Civic Center a day. The volunteers in Lubbock were awesome. It took nearly 100 staff to operate that clinic. So we had Lubbock Fire and Rescue, police, Sheriff’s Office, the Civic Center staff was awesome. Other city staff, [the] hospital sent people, medical school, nursing schools, church groups all showed up to help and make that clinic successful. And that’s really unique for Lubbock. I don’t think community saw that many volunteers come in to help with that kind of mass clinic.

Self-Walbrick: Still, there are thousands of Lubbockites who have not been vaccinated, and I would be remiss to not address that. How has that affected the viruses impact on our community?

Wells: There’s definitely a disparity between the severity of both hospitalization and death among individuals that are vaccinated and unvaccinated. So those individuals that are unvaccinated are still at risk for that severe disease and those complications. And in times where we have a peak, we have limited medical resources, we have limited treatments available and we can’t guarantee helping everybody.

Self-Walbrick: Following the recent omicron wave, we’ve now seen cases drop to just about the lowest numbers we’ve seen in the past two years. What are the health department’s COVID priorities at this point?

Wells: The health department’s still prepared. We’re in readiness mode ready to react if we see any surges in cases. So a lot of our work’s behind the scenes now - we’re watching our case counts every day, looking for any spikes, monitoring any of our variant reports, seeing if anything’s unusual. The health department’s still gonna be out there providing vaccines, making sure our local providers have vaccine available to give to the community. You’ll still see some vaccine campaigns, however, that’s going to be tweaked. We’re really going to be targeting high-risk individuals and older individuals for boosters. And we’ll still be ready to ramp up testing vaccinations and antivirals as needed if we see another spike.

Self-Walbrick: As a public health professional, what would you say you’ve learned from the pandemic? And how will that affect you going forward in your career?

Wells: I’ve learned a lot and myself and all of my staff have grown tremendously over the last two years. It’s weird to say that during a pandemic. It’s also been a rewarding experience, it’s been a growing experience. I have seen so many staff step up and take leadership roles that have never had to take a leadership role before. I’ve learned that sometimes you have to have those tough conversations. And it’s more important to do the right thing than do the popular thing. Sometimes I had to be the messenger of unpopular things, talking about things that people didn’t want to hear. And you just kind of have to push through that. And I think I’ve grown to be able to stand up and talk about those issues.

Self-Walbrick: Absolutely. And then kind of on the flip side of that, I mean, is there anything that you wish you’d done differently at this point?

Wells: Of course. People can Monday night quarterback this all day long. We’re going to be writing papers and books about how we could have handled the pandemic better. I’ve really learned that our responses really need to be local. What works, timing-wise, or for different restrictions, what works in New York or in Washington, DC or California is very different than what needs to happen in Lubbock, Texas. And we need to be able to localize those responses. If we see high case counts and our hospitals surging and not able to take care of our patients, then we need to be able to put some local restrictions in place. However, we also need to be able to back off on those local restrictions when we see those numbers change. So it’s really important for our local officials, public health our hospitals to be engaged together. To be watching these trends and make those decisions for what’s best for Lubbock.

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Have a news tip? Email Sarah Self-Walbrick at saselfwa@ttu.edu. Follow her reporting on Twitter @SarahFromTTUPM.

Sarah Self-Walbrick is the news director at Texas Tech Public Media, where she leads the news team and focuses on underreported stories in Lubbock. Sarah is a Lubbock native and a three-time graduate of Texas Tech University. She started her career at the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal.