From Ebola to Anthrax, Veteran State Epidemiologist says Resources Key to COVID-19

May 28, 2020

For 33 years, Diane Woolard headed the Virginia Department of Health team that watched for emerging diseases and suspected outbreaks, recommending ways to prevent them from spreading.

Now, after a year of retirement, she's back  lending a hand during the COVID-19 pandemic.

You may not remember, but in 1989 research monkeys died from Ebola virus disease at a facility in Reston. Four workers were exposed but never got sick. Diane Woolard, an epidemiologist who headed VDH's Surveillance and Investigations division at the time, worked through that and other pretty nasty diseases. "I was involved in the responses to anthrax in 2001, the pandemic flu in 2009, Ebola and Zika," she recounts.

But the coronavirus disease is different.  "The problem with COVID-19," Woolard says, "is that it started in the middle of flu season and nobody knew we had a new virus. It came hard and fast."

She said state epidemiologists had been preparing since January, after they had heard about it taking hold in other parts of the world. When it hit, it strained the system.  "When something of this magnitude occurs it's hard to have sufficient resources just because there's so many needs and so many questions. "

And the effects of COVID-19 on communities also are different.  "None of the others had such an impact on businesses and people's ability to pay their bills and feed their families," Woolard notes.

And there's more to come.  "Now, we're about to face some huge challenges with adding on more testing for all nursing home staff and residents. All the case interviews and identifying all their close contacts and interviewing all the contacts and having them self quarantine at home. It's massive, and that's where we have to now add so many more resources to get the job done."

And even more resources will be needed with potential treatments and a vaccine.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.