By LCDR Jen Osetek, Ph.D.
All of us have stories of how COVID-19 changed not only the world but our individual worlds. We have had to change our personal and professional roles and adopt new ones. For me, it has had a profound adaptation of 4 different roles in my life: Contractor for the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), a USCG Reserve Officer, a Public Health Preparedness professor, and Mom.
As a contractor with the USCG’s Office of Specialized Capabilities, I work with the Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Program. Decisions about personal protective equipment (PPE) are nothing new; neither are discussions of biological threats. Coronavirus PPE quickly came to dominate a good part of our time. Working with experts across the USCG, we were involved in workgroups including those focused on protecting our members in the field, decontamination procedures, taking care of those who got sick, and deciding how to safely bring people back to work after exposures. Instead of sitting across a conference table, our job is currently done over the phone and with screen shared documents. The logistics have changed but the dedication to our people and mission has not.
In my Coast Guard Reserve capacity, we organized a virtual drill weekend for the first time. While not the same as being together, this was a way to deliver required, position-specific training while keeping all our members healthy….and ready to deploy for the COVID response if needed. Like the other branches of the military, the USCG could not stop during a national emergency.
At Penn State, I teach in Public Health Preparedness Option of the Master of Professional Students in Homeland Security program. I currently have a class on critical infrastructure protection and another on non-medical obstacles that impact public health responses (a class I was excited to create based on my GMU dissertation). Coronavirus discussions have woven their way into both classes and I will certainly incorporate them into future courses. Our students range from military members to first responders to hospital health care workers and everything in between, so a majority are professionally impacted by the pandemic. In addition to students emailing us about how our program has helped them in their professional roles, we have also had students emailing asking for ways to contribute directly or seeking research opportunities. Seeing the impacts we are having and being able to support our students in their response efforts has been very rewarding.
Probably the most challenging part of my personal pandemic experience was the part that I was most unprepared for—my new role with virtual schooling. I was so grateful that my son’s school quickly transitioned the kids from the real classroom to Google Classroom almost seamlessly. Spending all the extra time with my son has been great, despite our mutual stubbornness! But—it is quite the exciting experience to be listening to a muted conference call while explaining 2nd-grade math or balancing a laptop with a pandemic policy on one leg with a tablet navigating Google Classroom on the other. It was also very fulfilling to be a trusted source of coronavirus information for some of the school parents trying to navigate everything they were hearing.
The coronavirus experience has had its challenges from a professional perspective. Still, it continues to be a very beneficial learning opportunity. Personally, we have had a lot of family time together that we would not have had otherwise. Professionally, the pandemic has pushed my colleagues and me to be creative and resilient. All four roles that I highlighted have involved working together to come up with strategies and workarounds that we would not have otherwise. We have successfully executed plans that were seemingly impossible just a few short months ago. COVID-19 has been the catalyst for great change and I genuinely believe we have stronger response capabilities because of it. As we mourn for those the world has lost and those currently suffering, I hope we use the experiences and lessons from this pandemic to better respond to the next public health emergency.
Jennifer Osetek, Ph.D. graduated from the George Mason Biodefense program in 2018 and was named the 2019 Outstanding Doctoral Student in Biodefense for her dissertation, “The Last Mile: Non-Medical Obstacles to Public Health Responses.” Dr. Osetek teaches Public Health Preparedness classes at the Penn State University’s College of Medicine and works with BayFirst Solutions as a CBRN analyst for the Coast Guard’s Office of Specialized Capabilities. She is also a LCDR in the Coast Guard Reserve….and was recently appointed to her temporary position as a 2nd-grade teacher.