Public health in a college town: Washtenaw County director sees 'a critical point'

October 24, 2020, 8:33 AM

By Vickie Elmer

As Jimena Loveluck leads the Washtenaw County Department of Health through a pandemic, she sounds remarkably calm for a woman with such a long list of worries to juggle: University of Michigan tailgating and parties; the county’s elderly, African American and Latino residents, many hit hard by the spring wave of Covid-19; her 89-year-old mother and her staff, “exhausted” by the public health crisis that continues unabated.

Yet her biggest worry is more fundamental: “I’m thinking about what another surge might look like.” 

Jimena Loveluck, Washtenaw health director (County photo)

“We’ve gotten to a critical point. Our case rate in Washtenaw County is the highest it's ever been. Higher than March or April,” Loveluck said in a wide-ranging interview. The state lists 4,536 confirmed coronavirus cases countywide since March and 116 deaths, as of Friday.

The county health director hopes her two-week order to University of Michigan undergraduates to largely stay at home, announced Tuesday, will let her team safeguard students and other residents, catch up on contact tracing and complete case investigations.

The 14-day emergency order directs U-M undergraduate students to stay at home, in their dorms, fraternity houses or apartments, except when they go to class, buy food or exercise outdoors. Loveluck acknowledged that the order may need to be extended, depending on the Covid metrics, the number of complaints and violations and other factors.

She blames social gatherings for the spread of Covid-19 among undergrads, and mentioned sorority and fraternity houses twice as part of the problem.

Most county cases have U-M base

Students leaving campus for their "permanent home" must follow a “university exit protocol,” including a Covid-19 test. The protocol was unveiled Thursday.

The Ann Arbor campus' fall enrollment rose slighty to 31,329 students this fall. More than 60 percent of coronavirus cases in Washtenaw County originated on U-M’s campus, and 99 percent of those were among students aged 19-21, Loveluck told a U-M virtual update on covid this week.

“I certainly have had friends and colleagues who have had Covid,” Loveluck said. Yet she and her two adult children, who like their mother graduated from Huron High School in Ann Arbor, have not been ill. Other family members in Ann Arbor, Chicago, New York and elsewhere have remained healthy, partly she thinks because “they have the health officer in the family. I give them advice.”

And all during the pandemic, she has grocery shopped for her elderly mother, who lives alone. Only recently have they started visiting together, outside and socially distanced.

“I think she works all the time. I get emails from her at all hours,” said Dr. Juan Marquez, the county medical officer who reports to Loveluck. She has been effective in advocating for more funding from the state and county to add staff, including contact tracers and other experts needed during the pandemic.

“Even in the most hectic situation I can think of she’s a very calming presence,” said Marquez.

On the job oine year

Loveluck has been the county health officer since September 2019, and expected to focus on other initiatives, including outreach and health equity for immigrants and other communities. She oversees public health for two universities, several smaller colleges and many elderly residents. About one in seven residents of Washtenaw County are 65 or older. (The county has nearly 345,000 people.)

She is bilingual, with Spanish as her first language, and has given health updates in Spanish and English. She also has had information translated into Chinese and Arabic. Recently, she recorded a video of herself getting a flu shot to encourage that preventive measure.

Even during the first Covid wave, Loveluck encouraged her team to take days off, and then tried very hard to leave them alone when they were off, Marquez said.

"We're all exhausted. We need to take care of ourselves -- to prevent burnout,” she said.

Latina born in Ohio

She is the youngest of four children, and the only American-born one. Her parents and siblings moved from Chile to Columbus, Ohio, where she was born at the Ohio State University Hospital. 

Health officers from the Big Ten college cities met virtually to discuss health precautions around football, she said. They'll send a letter asking the universities to consider “broader community metrics” of health and illness and to avoid night games. “That will go a long way to minimize some of the events and gatherings associated with football,” Loveluck said.

(Graphic: University of Michigan)

Loveluck expects her team to work on messaging with the city and university before U-M hosts Michigan State on Oct. 31. “We’ll focus … on what they can do safely or with low risk” on football weekends.  (U-M Football has announced some measures under a Hail from Home initiative.)

Likewise, her staff is informing restaurants and bars of the new limits on student movements.  “Students can go out and get food. They should not hang out” at a bar, restaurant or club, Loveluck said.

As far as enforcement of her order, her office has set up an email address and phone number to report violations. “It’s hard to be all Covid all the time, nonstop.”

Freelance writer Vickie Elmer co-owns a social enterprise called Mity Nice, which is licensed by the Washtenaw County Department of Health. It did not operate this year because of Covid-19.

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