By Abby Faria
Rae Dick serves as the Director of Environmental Services in the Westford Health Department. In this role, she manages several key areas and roles including health agents, inspections, grants, septic plans, regulation updates, community education, and emergency preparedness. Once the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the health department’s list of daily responsibilities became even longer. “It’s been all hands on deck,” she says.
Some of these additional COVID-19-related responsibilities include answering phone calls which have increased significantly since the pandemic began, conducting COVID-related inspections, and responding to COVID complaints and questions. To help manage the increased workload, the department has set up an email Listserv to help inform retail and restaurant owners in the community of the latest COVID-related guidance requirements. Dir. Dick also says the department has been using social media to spread important messages to the community regarding daily COVID case numbers, COVID-19 education, and other public health related information. It can be difficult to keep up with this, as the calls and emails continue to pour into the department and the state COVID-19 guidelines change weekly. Yet, “we go out into the community for ninety-nine percent of our complaints,” she says. For example, if there is a complaint that employees or customers are not wearing masks in a retail business, then “we go there and educate people on why it’s important to wear a face covering” before turning to more serious consequences. “Community education is our first line of defense,” Dir. Dick explains.
As the guidelines change, there has been a need to conduct more inspections of businesses that have reopened to ensure compliance with the state guidance. Some of these businesses include nail salons, gyms, retail stores, and restaurants. Sometimes people will ask “can you help us and come down to look at our establishment to make sure we are meeting the guidelines? These businesses want to do the right thing” Dir. Dick explains. She adds, “we find ourselves doing our regular daily jobs, and working beyond our capacity with the additional COVID-related responsibilities.”
However, Dir. Dick says that even as “we’re all doing [work] beyond the normal scope of our positions, the public health nurses are the heroes,” and emphasizes the mental toll it takes on everyone, but them especially. In the Westford Health Department, the part-time public health nurse answers all the phone calls in which people express concerns about their potential COVID-19 symptoms, assumptions, and ask where they can be tested. Much of Dir. Dick’s appreciation for the public health nurses comes from her passion in nursing and public health. “I started fourteen years ago at UMass Lowell for nursing,” she says, explaining that the waitlist for that program was very long and she would’ve had to wait over a year to begin the courses. She was then advised to consider pursuing a degree in community health education in the meantime. While interning with MHOA, she learned about public health and what local public health officers do. She was intrigued, immediately signed up for the program, and has been volunteering with MHOA for over fifteen years. “I just fell in love with public health,” she explains. “Every day is different, you don’t know what you’re going to walk into.” She started working in the field right after college. “They could mold me as much as they wanted because I had just graduated,” she says, reflecting on that role. “I started at the Westford Health Department as the health agent and continued in that role for thirteen years,” before taking on her current position as Director of Environmental Services. She soon joined the MHOA Executive Board after her internship. “I think it’s a wonderful organization and the membership is very important to me.” Dir. Dick had the opportunity to chair the virtual MHOA annual conference this fall, which she says was “a tremendous challenge and learning experience for me. The staff and conference committee worked really hard and they were incredibly helpful.”
Early on, Dir. Dick’s goal was to work in food protection within the Department of Public Health (MA-DPH). “What I love about being a health agent is you get an opportunity to build great rapport with the people and businesses in town… you become vested in the town…you never know what you’re going to come across,” she says, explaining that had she gone to work for MA-DPH like she originally wanted, she would’ve been conducting food inspections every day. Instead, “I’ll be conducting septic inspections in the morning, and then maybe complaint or housing inspections in the afternoon. Everyday is different… In my new role, I have a lot of room to grow our programs, improve services, and also be in the field.”
Dir. Dick believes her background in community health education helps her to communicate well and offer good customer service, especially as an inspector because she finds herself taking the time to explain why the regulations and laws require specific actions. “I love the customer service aspect of my job,” Dir. Dick says. She enjoys “speaking and meeting with business owners and the residents…We’re out at the farmer’s market giving out a lot of education and tools to help families, holding virtual emergency preparedness trainings, and giving out free emergency backpack kits to residents with disabilities through the Massachusetts Office of Disabilities and Homeland Security.”
Speaking further regarding MHOA, Dir. Dick says “MHOA is working hard behind the scenes to assist and advocate for local health departments and their members…..MHOA provides our local health departments with training opportunities, professional development, educational resources, and advocates for funding and assistance.” She also emphasizes that MHOA was “instrumental” in putting an intern group together to help with COVID-19 education and other related matters. She also discusses how MHOA continues to help members with maintaining their credentials and certifications through continuing education trainings.
Outside of her work, Dir. Dick loves to go camping. “I love a great book by the campfire,” she says. She enjoys partaking in other summer recreational activities too, like kayaking and tubing. She also loves entertaining, cooking and baking for her family and friends.
Dir. Dick emphasizes that she “does not know what is going to happen” as COVID-19 cases continue to rise. She notes that “not being able to engage with people is very isolating and it affects all of our [staff’s] mental health. We’re like a family here – it was nice to walk into offices and conferences and say ‘hi, how are you doing?'” Dir. Dick notes that although not a lot of people know what local public health is or what public health departments really do, she hopes that the pandemic is bringing a lot of those efforts to light.