On the frontlines of the pandemic

Ashley Bayne, assistant director of public health, recalls and documents the Herculean effort led by UND

Ashley Bayne, associate director of the UND public health program, says there was no question what she had to do when UND received the call for help from the North Dakota Department of Health nearly three years ago. She quickly assembled a team of students and other healthcare professionals that grew to 180 caseworkers who eventually reached nearly 50,000 people nationwide, either to investigate COVID-19 cases or to make close connections. Not only did her one-on-one conversations give people answers and peace of mind, but her work was credited with significantly slowing the spread of the disease across the state. Photo by Janelle Vonasek/AND Today.

Like the rest of the world, thousands of North Dakotans sat on their couches taped to their televisions, newspapers and social media during the early days of the grim and gripping pandemic.

Huddled in their homes, they were restless, restless, and hungry for answers when the only thing that seemed certain was the uncertainty of life itself – both the mundane and the heart-pounding, lung-breathing kind.

“People were scared. People died,” he recalled Ashley Baynethen manager and now deputy director of Public Health Program at AND Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences. She was in the middle of it then, describing it as a time when people probably welcomed a friendly call from a stranger more than ever.

And she would know. More than 180 of these strangers were part of an AND crisis team that quickly assembled them to help North Dakota’s struggling Department of Health and Human Services.

“Some people have been incredibly ill, isolated and lonely,” Bayne said. “And sometimes our case workers who called to check on them were the only people they spoke to every day.”

Review of AND lifeline

It’s now nearly three years since the novel virus first turned the world upside down, but Bayne says she remembers like yesterday the day she received her own surprise call from state epidemiologist Tracy Miller .

The state needed help, and it needed it fast.

Miller asked: Could someone at AND assist with case investigation and contact tracing to help slow the spread of the disease?

Though Bayne had the responsibilities of looking after a young son at home and also had an extra burden to juggle in preparation for public health reaccreditation, she said there was absolutely no question what she needed to do.

“I got a few students running, and before we knew it, we were supporting the whole state,” she said. “People don’t always realize the importance of public health until they really need it. This was real crisis mode, but everyone at AND and throughout the community has been amazing. Students and professionals came from all over.”

Based on the numbers

All in all, Team Bayne was quickly put together – along with a second team started within UND Student Health Service Tracking cases for 11 institutions in the North Dakota University System – would provide a vital lifeline of one-on-one support to nearly 50,000 individuals across the state.

click here to full screen.

The UND-based teams would complete 36,579 COVID-19 case investigations and 10,671 close contact notifications nationwide over the next 26 months. The Herculean effort, she said, totaled 25,561 shifts, 80,113 hours and more than $2 million in state contracts.

“Sometimes it felt like we were moving at warp speed. Everything was new for everyone. I was the lead investigator for the contracts, but I’d never done that before either,” Bayne said, laughing. “We’ve had great support, but it’s not like anyone said, ‘OK, here’s the process to follow during a pandemic.’

“There was no trial. There was no manual or manual to follow. It felt like building a company from the ground up.”

This deal included everything from hiring – quickly onboarding up to 30 people in five days at once – to extensive training and personal development, as well as managing a monster plan, providing regular feedback, job evaluations and even implementing “Caseworker of the Month” for employee recognition.

“I knew that keeping the team together was crucial to keep the work moving, so that was an important part of my job,” Bayne said. “I wanted to make sure everyone knew they were doing very important work and that they knew they were a valued team member — that I cared, the public health community cared, and the university cared from the President down.”

dr Joshua WynneDean of the UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences, put an exclamation mark on it.

“The efforts of our public health program faculty, staff and students to meet the challenges of the pandemic have been nothing short of heroic,” Wynne said. “In many ways, much of the state’s containment and awareness-raising efforts have passed through our program, in close coordination with the North Dakota Department of Health and Human Services. I have no doubt that the team here reduced morbidity and saved lives in 2020 and beyond.”

In the fire, then a new job

It was strenuous work at times, but Bayne validated its value in terms of the overall health of the state, as well as the level of quality experiential learning it offered to the AND public health students.

Katarina Domitrovich will confirm this. As a graduate student in the program, she was one of Bayne’s two lead case managers.

Domitrovich and Bayne

“I think everyone on the team felt that we were doing something bigger than ourselves to contribute to the public health workforce at an unprecedented time,” Domitrovich said. “We knew it really mattered what we were doing and I will always cherish that experience. It allowed me to grow professionally and confidently in the safe space of my AND family, where the faculty – and particularly my supervisor Ashley – wanted me to succeed and gave me a safety net of support and resources.”

In addition, Domitrovich said she made valuable connections in this area, which has led to her current position as Health Equality Coordinator for the North Dakota Department of Health.

Even more people praised the AND teams in a 175-page report Bayne compiled, partly to serve as a best practice guide for the future and partly to recognize everyone’s great work.

One team member said, “Being a part of this (work) has taught me that no matter how big or small your role, no matter how important or unimportant you think you are, you can make the biggest difference in someone else’s life.”

And from another: “What really struck me was how alone and scared so many people were. In many cases, no one had told them what to do or what to expect. They had no information and for us, being able to answer all their questions was probably the best part.”

A good lesson for everyone

All in all, Bayne said she was grateful for the whole experience. AND not only had a tremendous impact on the health of North Dakota residents, but also impacted the University’s ability to keep many services running.

“It was wonderful. People just showed up every day and most with a smile on their face,” Bayne said. “I think knowing how many people were involved in similar work across campus and knowing that people’s lives depended on our work kept us going.

“We all had the same mission and people took real pride in serving the community, their state and the nation. I’ve always been proud to work at UND, but honestly my pride has grown tremendously after being a part of it.”

Bayne says she’s also proud that all the hard work has shown outsiders the importance of public health.

“At its peak, we saw an 80 percent increase in applications to the program from one cycle to the next,” she said, and colleges across the country also reported a surge in inquiries and applications for public health degrees.

“The pandemic and the UND experience showed students the power of public health policy,” she said. “They have seen how they can be part of this process and how changes in this policy can affect an entire community, an entire state and an entire nation.”

SEE FOR YOURSELF: You can read Bayne’s detailed reportincluding a timeline, lessons learned, stats at a glance, and more personal reflections from team members at the link.

BY NUMBERS: Bayne emphasized that her team’s work is just part of UND’s ongoing fight against the pandemic. Hundreds of others across campus were simultaneously administering vaccines and testing. Click the link to find one Graph by numbers to highlight just a few of these efforts. “Behind each of these little bullet points, there are a million other details and people that make a difference,” Bayne said.

Janelle Vonasek

About the author: Janelle Vonasek graduated from the University of North Dakota in 1989, where she earned degrees in newsroom journalism and public administration. The longtime design editor and writer at the Grand Forks Herald is now the special projects editor at UND Today. She lives in East Grand Forks with her husband, James, and they have three daughters, all of whom are graduates or current students of UND.

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