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Wash Co's public health officer Jimena Loveluck named 'Woman of the Year' by United Way of Wash Co

Jimena Loveluck
United Way of Washtenaw County

Lauded for her "exemplary leadership during a pandemic and going above and beyond" in keeping the community healthy, Washtenaw County public health officer Jimena Loveluck has been chosen as the2022 "Woman of the Year" by United Way of Washtenaw County.
WEMU's Lisa Barry talks with Loveluck about the honor and how the events of the past nearly two years have brought to light the importance of public health efforts.

Lisa Barry: As 2021 begins to draw to a close, we're starting to hear about the best of's or the highlights from the year, and a local award was recently announced by the United Way of Washtenaw County, their Woman of the Year award. This is Lisa Barry, and we're joined by the winner of that award, Washtenaw County Woman of the Year, the health officer for the Washtenaw County Health Department, Jimena Loveluck. Thanks for joining us here on 89-1 WEMU to talk about that. 

Jimena Loveluck: Oh, thank you so much, Lisa, for having me. 

Lisa Barry: Congratulations! How must that feel to win an award like that? 

Jimena Loveluck: Oh, thank you. I appreciate it. I'm very honored and grateful to be recognized by the United Way of Washtenaw County in this way. But, of course, I share the honor with our whole public health team and the health department here that's just been working tirelessly for now, like, 19 months dealing with COVID-19 and really sharing it with other public health leaders, particularly in Michigan. We know that many of our public health leaders have been under attack and disparaged for doing their jobs. And it feels an honor to get this award. But, at the same time, this is our job in public health, and, granted, it's been particularly challenging during COVID-19. But I share this with our staff and with our fellow public health leaders. 

Lisa Barry: I remember interviewing you when you took over as health officer for Washtenaw County. How many years has it been now?

Jimena Loveluck: I remember that interview also. I think I did it with our previous health officer, Ellen Rabinowitz, in the studio. Yeah, in person.

Lisa Barry: Yes. 

Jimena Loveluck: It was two years in September. 

Lisa Barry: OK. Did you ever imagine, at that time, that this is what you'd be going through? 

Jimena Loveluck: No, no, certainly not. And I have to say, I think about this a lot because, really, it was not even six months before I started having to work with our staff in responding to COVID-19. And so, really, most of the two years since I've been health officer have been focused on COVID-19 response and really, you know, being the health officer during what is undoubtedly one of the most challenging times we've had in our community. 

Lisa Barry: And I hear you giving credit to your staff and let me say this as objectively as possible. They have been so helpful to us at WEMU and getting the word out to the community at this definitely difficult time. But this award that you are receiving is based on women taking action to address community issues. So, some of that is directed at you. And what have you learned over this past year? What can you share with us that you feel that this award may have been based upon? 

Jimena Loveluck: Well, I think, first of all, I want to, you know, recognize the other women that have shared this award before me, remarkable women that have exemplified leadership in our community. I also want to recognize the women in our health department that are, you know, leading our public health response along with me. And I think, for public health, we have obviously been at the forefront of this response during this public health emergency. And I think for so many of our residents, of our community members, public health as I have has often been invisible. People don't think about what we do in public health, the impact that we have. And so, I think, for me as the health officer, it's been so important to not only respond to this COVID-19 pandemic, but to ensure that our response is driven by equity, driven by science and accurate information, and that we are showing the importance of public health, not only in terms of emergency response, but that we're also thinking about the future and ensuring that we're investing in public health in an ongoing manner, so that hopefully we won't have another pandemic in the future like this. But if we do, we are better prepared, and we have the resources needed to continue to support our workforce, and to ensure that our community members health is protected. 

Lisa Barry: It's not been a fun way to go about it, but it certainly seems like the pandemic has shined a light on local public health departments.

Jimena Loveluck: Absolutely. I mean, not just for Washtenaw County, but I think throughout Michigan, throughout the country, local health departments have been at the forefront. It's our amazing public health nurses that are vaccinating people on a daily basis and how exciting that we're going to be starting to vaccinate five to 11 year olds. I mean, it's amazing, but it's also endless. 

Lisa Barry: Right. 

Jimena Loveluck: The work just doesn't end. And I think we all owe an amazing amount of thanks and gratitude to our public health nurses, to our public health staff, who just continue to work tirelessly in this fight against COVID. 

Lisa Barry: And while I have you here, as we look at the COVID cases in the county, technically, Washtenaw County does have a high vaccination rate, but is still also considered at a high rate of transmission. 

Jimena Loveluck: Yes. 

Lisa Barry: And for those of us who like I would say, "I don't think I could do another pandemic winter. We're trying to move forward and get on with our lives." Can you kind of put that in perspective for us about how careful we should be, or can we move back out into the community? 

Jimena Loveluck: Sure. I mean, it's certainly the biggest difference between this year and last year is that we have vaccines, we have safe and effective vaccines, that are now widely available. We are now vaccinating even five to 11 year olds just, you know, with the recent approval. And so, vaccinations are our best public health tool to get back to, you know, what life was like before COVID, but, absolutely, we still need to be careful, right? We know that, as you mentioned, we have high community transmission. And so, that means that we need to think about that in terms of masking, when we're in indoor public places. Thinking about other, you know, if we're having gatherings, thinking about are those gatherings with people who are not vaccinated and taking necessary precautions, are people in close quarters without great ventilation? I mean, all of those things, the things that we've been talking about from the very beginning in terms of wearing masks, good hand hygiene, staying away from people and others. If you are feeling sick, if you have symptoms, and obviously if you do have COVID, isolating and if you've been exposed following quarantine guidance, all of those things, along with testing, continue to be really important. But, of course, the big difference is that we do have safe and effective vaccines.

Lisa Barry: I have the opportunity to talk to a lot of infectious disease experts and medical historians, and I hear a lot that the political ramifications and the sociological implications of this pandemic have really played a big part in what's happening. And I don't know if it's happened to you, but I've heard of other public health officials in Michigan who have received death threats because of mask mandates. Has it been that difficult for you? Have you had to deal with that along with everything else you're trying to manage as Washtenaw County's public health officer? 

Jimena Loveluck: Well, I think there is no doubt that I hear from my colleagues directly who are health officers in other counties, some of the threats and challenges that they're dealing with. And I won't say that I haven't experienced some similar challenges, but I think, you know, we are steadfast in following public health science and in doing what we are appointed to do, which is protect the health of all of our residents. And I just want to recognize that United Way of Washtenaw County has been an amazing partner in this, not just with the health department, but with so many community organizations. And you mentioned sort of the the broader impact that COVID-19 has had, not just from a public health perspective. I think, you know, United Way has stepped up in so many ways, again, with their vision of ensuring that everyone has an equal opportunity for health and for a long life, that they have provided funding to community organizations that have been providing services to members of our community throughout the pandemic. And they have ensured that those resources particularly go to organizations and communities most impacted by COVID-19 in our 48197/48198 zip code among communities of color. And so, I just have to give a shoutout to United Way for really being such a great partner and to so many other organizations that have been critical and have continue to operate during COVID to ensure that community members receive services, and that's going to be ongoing. We're going to need all organizations, all service providers, community groups, and our local government working together to ensure that we can all recover and continue to work towards addressing the inequities that have been so highlighted by COVID. 

Lisa Barry: Well, this is what this is ultimately about is giving you a shout out. Jimena Loveluck. Woman of the Year, voted by the Washtenaw County United Way. You're going to get that award virtually at their Power of the Purse event in March, and we just want to congratulate you and thank you for all your hard work here at WEMU. 

Jimena Loveluck: Thanks so much. I appreciate it.

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— Lisa Barry is the host of All Things Considered on WEMU. You can contact Lisa at 734.487.3363, on Twitter @LisaWEMU, or email her at lbarryma@emich.edu

Lisa Barry was a reporter, and host of All Things Considered on 89.1 WEMU.
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