- James Buck
- Helen Reid, Acting director, Vermont Department of Health Laboratory
Eight months. That's how long Helen Reid thought she might be acting director of the Vermont Department of Health Laboratory in Colchester after the retirement of her predecessor in October 2019. She agreed to fill in until a permanent replacement could be hired.
But four months into Reid's "temporary" role, Vermont entered its worst public health crisis in a century. She found herself, along with the rest of the lab's staff, in siege mode. The team oversaw one of the most important tasks for slowing the pandemic: implementing the laboratory tests that determine who has contracted COVID-19.
Reid is not a lab scientist by training. The 44-year-old Rochester, N.Y., native came into the job with a background in public policy and health care administration. Prior to getting hired four years ago as division director of health surveillance, which oversees health statistics, epidemiology and the state lab, Reid worked for Planned Parenthood of South Florida.
Normally, the state lab conducts surveillance and testing for a panoply of public health threats: foodborne illnesses such as salmonella and E. coli; drinking water contaminants such as heavy metals; environmental hazards such as household lead and radon gas; and infectious diseases such as HIV, measles and tuberculosis. But by mid-March 2020, all but the most health-critical tests were sidelined to make way for COVID-19.
The public might think that testers simply send a swab to the lab and get back a result, but Reid pointed out that there were "a million things that needed to fall into place" to ensure that the thousands of tests were done quickly and reliably. Inaccuracies or delays could cost lives.
"It's very humbling. The staff here really educated me," she said. "I learned a lot in a short amount of time."
Especially in the early weeks of the pandemic, processes and procedures could be chaotic and change hourly, Reid recalled, as state health officials often received little guidance, and even conflicting information, from the federal government. And while the health department routinely trains for pandemics, problems arose, such as supply shortages, which no one had anticipated.
"It was really frustrating for our staff," she said. "They saw the need but they didn't have the tools to do their jobs the way they wanted to. It felt like we had one arm tied behind our backs."
Several months in, Reid and her staff were still working seven days a week, from early morning until late at night, going home only to eat and sleep. Normally, the lab conducts 30,000 to 35,000 tests annually across all of its programs. By last summer, before some COVID-19 testing was contracted out to other facilities, the lab was processing 5,000 to 6,000 tests per week. This created unforeseen health issues for lab employees, including repetitive-motion injuries from opening and closing test tubes.
Compounding employees' stress were fears and uncertainties about how the virus spreads and the dangers posed by being in the building. When the pandemic started, Reid, a single mother, had a 9-month-old at home. She worried that he'd contract the virus in daycare and give it to her, or she'd bring it home to him. And the devastating nursing home outbreaks last spring "took an emotional toll" on everyone, she said.
Deputy Health Commissioner Tracy Dolan said that Reid was incredibly resourceful at taking charge and solving problems.
"She stepped in when we needed her to, and, like everything Helen does, she did it with thoroughness and dedication and passion," Dolan said. "Helen doesn't do anything partway."
Nor will Reid take credit for what turned out to be an unprecedented team effort.
"The people who work here are very dedicated to their jobs. They're true public servants... and they do it quietly," she said. "They just want to do their work and feel like they're making a difference."