Perkins takes reins at public health

New Uinta County Public Health Nurse Manager Callie Perkins and Wyoming Department of Health Nursing Regional Supervisor Kim Proffit pose in front of the “Wall of Hope” displaying people’s reasons for being vaccinated against COVID-19. (HERALD PHOTO/Sheila McGuire)

EVANSTON — The work of public health staff has certainly become more visible in the nearly two years since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, although that work has always been vital in helping to promote the health of communities. Evanston’s Kim Proffit, former Uinta County Public Health Nurse Manager, has certainly found herself in the public eye a great deal over the past two years as she has steered much of the county’s pandemic response.

Now, Proffit will be helping guide public health programs in five counties after being promoted to a regional role overseeing nurse managers in Uinta, Platte, Goshen, Albany and Laramie counties, while Callie Perkins has taken on the role of Uinta County Public Health Nurse Manager.

Perkins officially started in her new position in mid-November, after previously working as the director of nursing at South Lincoln Medical Center in Kemmerer. Prior to that, she worked for several years at the Wyoming State Hospital, where she worked her way up through the ranks from CNA to RN, in various departments that included infection control, quality assurance, performance improvement and staff education. Proffit will continue to work out of Evanston primarily, with travel to other counties as needed.

As the pandemic continues, much of the work of both Perkins and Proffit will continue to revolve around COVID-19, including public communication, contact tracing and response to surges, planning and holding vaccination clinics and more. Perkins said she considers herself fortunate to be stepping into her new role after the local public health office has already fine-tuned things like vaccination clinics, which involve not just administering the shots, but planning, scheduling and record-keeping as well.

Proffit and Perkins said public health has continued to be busy vaccinating county residents against COVID-19, particularly as the shots have been authorized for use in anyone age 5 and older and boosters have been recommended for everyone within 6 or more months of receiving a second dose. Proffit said they’ve been getting lots of phone calls from parents with questions about the vaccines and said she recently attended training with healthcare professionals from the CDC. “There’s been lots of disinformation and misinformation and lots of concerns from parents,” said Proffit, “but after attending that training and seeing the data myself I feel really confident that was a really well-thought-out decision from the CDC. There have been very few side effects reported in that 5-11 age group.”

Both Proffit and Perkins said it’s been rewarding to administer shots to kids and hear their reasons for being vaccinated. “Lots of these kids have been prepared and chose to get the shots themselves. They’re so brave,” said Proffit. “We’ve loved seeing the kids’ reasons for choosing to be vaccinated.”

In addition, both said the COVID-19 vaccine clinics for young people have provided an excellent opportunity to remind parents about the importance of other childhood vaccinations and get kids caught up on those shots as well. “Vaccines in general have kind of been taken for granted until COVID came along,” said Proffit. “This has really shone some light on them again and we’ve had people sharing stories about other vaccines, like side effects from the first polio vaccine. The COVID vaccines are amazingly fine-tuned in comparison.”

Perkins said she’s excited to be moving to a role focused on the prevention piece of community health, particularly after working in a critical access hospital and working directly with severely ill COVID patients. “Every department at South Lincoln was impacted by COVID,” she said. “Now I get to be on the prevention side rather than caring for patients in the intensive care unit.” Proffit said the firsthand experiences Perkins has had with COVID patients provide her with an invaluable perspective she is bringing with her to the county public health office. “COVID has changed everything in terms of public health response,” said Perkins. “We’re a lot more vigilant now.”

While COVID continues to dominate much of their work, Perkins said she is looking forward to getting through the pandemic and refocusing on some of the work that’s been relegated to the back burner during the pandemic, including the Healthy Evanston initiative launched years ago. “I want to be able to devote that same amount of attention to something other than COVID,” said Perkins, noting the work of public health includes looking at and addressing things like health disparities in populations and across demographics. “It will be nice when every conversation isn’t about COVID.”

Proffit said she is looking forward to helping build more communication and collaboration among counties throughout the state, so that good ideas from one area can be implemented in others, for example. After becoming so invested and devoting so much time to the pandemic response, Proffit said it’s going to be hard to step away from that direct involvement, but feels the county is in good hands with Perkins. “I’m grateful she’s got a good brain,” she said.

Proffit continued by saying, “Responding to the pandemic has been super challenging but super meaningful. I’m grateful for the kind of person she is and the experience she brings. It’s hard to leave my old position in the midst of this because I care so much about this community. I’m relieved Callie also cares so much. Stepping to a new role brings a little bit of relief but also a little bit of heartbreak.”

“I’m not being cut off cold turkey,” joked Proffit. “I’m still here to support Callie, but she has her own ideas and vision. I’m looking forward to supporting other nurse managers in their role that can be so rewarding and is really important, but it’s also kind of scary and overwhelming.”

Both Proffit and Perkins also shared their appreciation for healthcare personnel in the community throughout the pandemic. “We feel for people in our community mourning losses,” said Proffit. “COVID has been and continues to be really hard on our community. History will look back on this as major and ripple effects will continue throughout the world. I feel lots of gratitude to our community for pulling together, helping one another out and being kind.”

“I feel particularly grateful for Dr. (Michael) Adams, the county public health officer, and other good people in good places,” continued Proffit. “He’s been pretty courageous and I’ve appreciated working with him and having his support.” Perkins echoed that assessment, stating, “The choices that have had to be made over the past couple of years have been courageous.”

Proffit also expressed appreciation for Wyoming State Public Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist. “She’s still there,” she said. “We’ve seen lots of health directors around the country quit due to threats, but she’s still there and she still cares, even after receiving threats. She’s so purely dedicated and motivated, and I wish everybody could know that.”

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