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On The Frontlines: Fighting Two Public Health Crises

August 12, 2020
Lauren

In February, Lauren Hoff-Borling would never have guessed she’d be leading a presentation on public health to her Army Reserve unit. She definitely would not have expected they’d actually care about it.

In addition to being an intelligence analyst and a Kent State online Master of Public Health student, Hoff-Borling works as a prevention educator in a behavior health facility, teaching K-12 students about suicide prevention, drug and alcohol prevention, as well as online safety. But, like many in the public health field, she found her once overlooked profession suddenly in the headlines. Even her commanding officer asked her to speak to her unit, a group who Hoff-Borling describes as steadfast skeptics.

“They were asking tons of questions, which I was not expecting,” said Hoff-Borling, who has been in the Army Reserve since 2015. “We make sure to verify where our info is coming from, because that's just part of our job. We're also very aware of political bias from media sources, and they didn't know public health well enough to know what was outlandish and what wasn't.”

Her scheduled 45-minute presentation went for an hour and a half. She walked them through public health vocabulary and everything experts knew about COVID-19 at the time.

“I thought I was just gonna bore them to death, but they asked tons of questions.”

Answering the Warm Line

One day in March, Hoff-Borling was teaching in schools, and the next day, the governor of Ohio had ordered them closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Her team of four, who normally visited districts across the country to teach prevention and online safety classes, weren’t the only ones impacted in her organization. Its crisis services and a mobile crisis team decided to institute a “warm line,” a call line designed for those looking for support but not necessarily facing an immediate mental health crisis. Hoff-Borling, a certified health education specialist, stepped up to help out.

“Our crisis hotline was getting overwhelmed, and they were noticing that there were a good amount of people calling specifically because they were anxious, nervous or upset about COVID-19,” Hoff-Borling said. “They set up a COVID-19 warm line, so that those people could call the warm line instead of holding up the crisis hotline when people were suicidal.”

Two nurses and two health educators staffed the line, often fielding questions about what is and isn’t true about the virus. On a larger scale, Hoff Borling sees this misinformation as the biggest issue public health professionals are battling. From her background in mental health services though, she also knows how outside influences can impact an individual’s wellbeing, creating a second public health crisis for professionals like her.

“I don't even think there's research that could tell us anything definitively, and I don't like to talk without data,” Hoff-Borling said. “It's just when people are isolated like they have been, when there's massive amounts of people who have lost their jobs, and when there’s just stress in general, we know suicide rates increase and so do other issues. It's just harder to monitor all of the other mental disorders with the way data is collected.

“We're just, we're waiting for the tidal wave.”

Contact Tracing in Ohio’s Lake County

While Hoff-Borling is no longer staffing her organization’s warm line, she has moved on to working as a student employee at Kent State, which partnered with its local health department to provide support to contact tracers. She’s being trained to conduct surveys and help identify those who may have been in contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.

In addition to being a student worker, Hoff-Borling (who prides herself in staying active) is also back at her usual job, part-time for right now, preparing for the start of the school year. For about the past year, she’s been earning her online MPH at Kent State.

Long-term, she’s hoping her master’s degree, combined with her military service, will help her land a commission with the U.S. Public Health Service, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services, and eventually a position in the Epidemic Intelligence Service at the CDC. In the meantime, Hoff-Borling sees how her time in the Army Reserve has impacted her career, especially in becoming a better public speaker and working with students.

“What’s a 17-year-old compared to fielding questions from a one-star general?” she joked.

It also impacted what program she chose for her MPH.

“It makes it hard to do certain programs in person, because I never know what my schedule is gonna be with the Army until they tell me,” Hoff-Borling said. “On top of the fact, I have a full-time civilian job and a toddler, so online works so much better.”

Being at Kent State has impacted her day job as well, including being better adept at creating surveys and collecting and tracking data. Her more experienced coworkers are regularly surprised she has developed these types of skills already and can handle more nontraditional projects such as designing infographics or event materials.

Her work before and during the pandemic has only confirmed to her the importance of public health.

“No one can live their best life if they're not healthy,” Hoff-Borling said. “Our whole country is based on the right to the pursuit of happiness. In my mind, you can't do that if you're not healthy. Everyone in public health is doing everything they can, so that people can be as healthy as possible. I can't think of who else would be doing the work for prevention at a community level or at the policy level.”

IMPACT OF PUBLIC HEALTH

Before, during and after a public health crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, experienced professionals can have an impact on the lives of individuals and communities. With the skills and knowledge gained from the online MPH program at Kent State, students will have the tools to enter a number of healthcare professions across the country. Learn more about the career opportunities open to MPH graduates, and get your application started today.