It's been a whirlwind year for Washtenaw County's health officer.
by Shelley Daily
From the April, 2021 issue
Jimena Loveluck was only a few months into her new job as 'Washtenaw County's health officer when 'Covid-19 hit. She and her staff at the county health department entered pandemic response mode and haven't looked back--often working up to twelve-hour days with little time off.
"I feel I don't even have time to reflect on the year," says Loveluck. In March, as the department led local mass vaccination efforts and coordinated vaccination strategy, it also marked the one-year anniversaries of the first confirmed Covid case in Washtenaw County and the first death of a county resident. By mid-month, the confirmed and probable toll had reached 247 people.
Loveluck, fifty-five, says she credits her "dedicated and smart and caring and passionate staff" with "responding to so many phases and challenges of the pandemic." More than a hundred 'employees--and scores of temporary workers who were hired to test, trace, investigate, and 'vaccinate--faced challenges from the initial test shortage to "the politicization of the pandemic" to "inequities which have been so amplified during the pandemic."
As of mid-March, the health department had given more than 30,000 vaccine doses and was nearly finished offering K-12 school employees first doses in its partnership with IHA and Michigan Medicine. As vaccine supplies increase--and the state opens vaccine eligibility to every resident age sixteen or over starting April 5--the department is ramping up vaccination clinics at EMU, Chelsea, and community pop-ups, and sending nurses to group homes and homebound seniors.
Loveluck works to ensure state guidelines are implemented and advocates at the state level for county needs. She's one of just two health officers statewide appointed by Governor Whitmer to serve on the Protect Michigan Commission that promotes vaccine awareness and confidence.
"I've often said that becoming health officer is like drinking water from a fire hose" because of the multiple roles and responsibilities, says Loveluck's predecessor, Ellen Rabinowitz. She says her former deputy "has a steely calm in the face of a really
scary situation" and is "intentional" about developing relationships and collaborating with community partners.
"I'm very proud of the equity framework we've used in responding to Covid," Loveluck says. "We were the first local health department [in the state] to share Covid data by race or ethnicity, and that showed the disproportionate impact in communities of color in certain parts of our county ... That information was a call to action, not only for the health department, but for so many community partners and for our health systems to really come together in partnership and respond to these inequities." The department recently launched a state pilot project that is sending an additional 2,500 vaccine doses to high-need areas via pop-up clinics.
Loveluck's first name, pronounced "he-men-ah," reflects her own multicultural background. Her parents were born and raised in Chile and moved to the U.S. with her three older siblings in the mid-1960s. The youngest, and the only child born in the U.S., Loveluck grew up bilingual in Ann Arbor, graduated from Huron High, and majored in English at the U-M. She considered careers in teaching and law before switching to social work and public health (her MSW is from Boston College).
"In all of those things that I thought about doing, I think more and more of what formed for me was the importance of work in service to others," she says, "and work in service of social justice. I grew up in a family that was very committed to issues of human rights and social justice."
Although her family had left Chile before military dictator Augusto Pinochet seized power, her parents knew people who were imprisoned or forced into exile by the regime. Her mother worked with organizations there to bring the stories of human rights abuses to the U.S. using colorful hand-stitched tapestries called arpilleras created by Chilean women. The artwork reflected the stories of the sons, brothers, and husbands who disappeared during the dictatorship. Her mother, Eliana Moya-Raggio--who taught for nearly thirty years at U-M's Residential 'College--also sold the artwork to support the women. Two arpilleras hang on the wall in Loveluck's office. They're a reminder of the importance of human rights, and she says, "I very much think of public health as a human right."
She met her husband, Tim Veeser, their freshman year at U-M. Now an attorney, he's been "incredibly supportive" during a tough year. "He's a great cook--he feeds me," she laughs. "He's also a great listener and encourages me and lets me vent." They have a daughter in grad school in New York City studying to be a family nurse practitioner, and a son who is a health care consultant in Chicago.
Loveluck started her public health career when she was in grad school, answering phones at the Massachusetts AIDS Hotline and working as an HIV test counselor. "That was a time when there was very little treatment available," she recalls, and there were "some very difficult conversations and experiences." But she learned the importance of sharing "accurate information, to respond as more information is learned, and to also deal with stigma." She brings those insights to her current job as she talks to the media, gives regular video updates--some in Spanish--and provides constantly updated Covid data and health news on the department's website.
She led the HIV/AIDS Resource Center (now UNIFIED) for seventeen years, worked closely with the county health department in that position, and was eventually appointed to the board of health. She saw a job with the health department as a "great way to think about a final stage of my career--continuing to work in service to others but having a more expansive focus on public health."
"I don't think people in their day-to-day lives thought much about public health or the work that the local department does, because when we're doing a good job and we're preventing illness, people don't think of us. But I think this past year has ... taught us the importance of investing in public health and also the importance of investing in preventive health."
With the positivity rate in Washtenaw County at less than 2 percent, and the influx of vaccines promised by the Biden administration, "we're going in the right direction," she says. But public health departments also are "racing against the variants" to control the virus before it evolves further.
Post-pandemic, Loveluck hopes to have more time for walks, bike rides, and visits with friends. And, like many people, she's looking forward to a long-awaited reunion: She hopes by October it will be safe for all of her siblings to get together to celebrate their mother's ninetieth birthday.
[Originally published in April, 2021.]
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