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Only on 23 News: One-on-one with Public Health Administrator Dr. Sandra Martell

Published: Mar. 11, 2021 at 9:43 PM CST
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ROCKFORD, Ill. (WIFR) - One year ago today, COVID-19 was officially declared a national pandemic by the World Health Organization. Four days later, Winnebago County saw its first positive confirmed COVID-19 case. 361 days and 27,000 positive tests later, I sat down with Winnebago County Public Health Administrator Dr. Sandra Martell to discuss the past, present and future of COVID-19.

Martell has shown up in your living room on a regular basis for nearly a year. She says, “I hope I’m not the face of COVID going forward. I think in public health, we were always planning for a hundred year flu.” When the pandemic began, Martell’s job duties were re-prioritized in a major way. “Did we ever understand how big and large it would be? I think it challenged all of our systems,” Martell says.

Shifting from NARCAN training, restaurant inspections and fighting lice in Winnebago County schools, to becoming the Region 1 voice in the fight against the most widespread pandemic of our lifetime, things changed on the fly.

Martell says, “Like anything else you have to build, you plan and then definitely changed the plans as they evolved. So when I think of this back a year ago when we were announcing the first case, we really had to pivot as we learned more about this novel virus. We really had to think on our feet and change it up.”

As knowledge of the disease evolved, so too did the reporting of numbers, a change that became a challenge for Martell in terms of a transparent delivery of information in an accurate way. “At first when we knew how many people were testing from a multitude of sources, that number became more difficult to report because that was not something we had access to. That was a state reporting number,” Martell says.

Martell says she feels the pressure to make sure she’s providing truthful and current information saying, “Because that is my role and responsibility as the Public Health Administrator. To help people understand the disease, what’s going on in the pandemic and how they can take preventative action.” Now the key component of that preventative action is the COVID-19 vaccine, which causes excitement but also some anxiety in the public. “We knew there would not be adequate vaccines day one when they first rolled out,” Martell says.

Martell and her department recommends everyone register at wchd.com but also to sign up at Walgreens, CVS or at Meijer. Martell says, “We’re used to choice in America. You go down to the grocery store and I always say at Woodman’s, look at all of the jelly choices, but here’s one where we’re saying take the first available.”

When asked about if we were doing this interview in 2022 she shared her thoughts on what the world will look like. “I think we may have to have annual COVID-19 vaccines. I think we will be returning to more in-person types of activities, some of the vibrancy of our economy especially as we relate to some of the trade and tourism industries. Hopefully we will take the good into the next year so we will be able to have some of those social events we plan for. Weddings, graduations and all of the things that have made our life meaningful,” Martell says.

She said the hardest things on a weekly basis for her was to report on the 450 lives lost due to COVID-19 in Winnebago County. They have ranged in ages from 20 to 100 years old. An even 50 percent of those who died were living on their own.

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Following the interview, Dr. Martell wanted to add a statement of clarification. It reads as follows:

“My commitment to the community throughout this pandemic has been and continues to be to provide the most accurate information available from a local perspective to educate and inform our community with the goal of preventing the spread of COVID-19. I understand that there are those who have disagreed with the strategies and challenged the data and the decisions I have had to make have been unpopular. My goal has been from the start to have our community come through this pandemic with their lives and livelihoods as intact as possible. Our community has been negatively impacted but has demonstrated resiliency and innovation. At the end of the day, I have done the best I could everyday to address the pandemic.”

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