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ISU alum reports for duty when health emergency strikes

Laurie Jones

Illinois State alumna Laurie (Howard) Jones.

American public health workers who have traveled to West Africa in response to the Ebola epidemic take extreme precautions while on the ground to protect their bodies from the disease.

But even if they return to the U.S. physically healthy, the trip can still take a psychological toll. That’s where Illinois State alumna Laurie (Howard) Jones ’97 comes in.

Jones, who works at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is part of the U.S. government’s Ebola response team. She’s done more than 830 post-deployment briefings with CDC employees who’ve returned from Africa, making her the first contact for those who may be struggling with what they saw overseas. Even a highly trained doctor can be shaken by seeing mass burials or extreme poverty.

“I give them the opportunity to vent and express their concerns,” she said. “I provide a safe sounding board.”

It’s a fitting assignment for Jones, who’s been on what she calls a never-ending quest to help others improve or hold onto their health. Growing up in the Hyde Park neighborhood on Chicago’s south side, she was unsettled by health problems—preventable ones—in her own family and neighborhood.

“I want my community to be healthy,” she said.

That led to a degree in health education at Illinois State, where she made her first real impact as an intern with Student Health Services. She ran peer education workshops and a weekly reproductive health class.

“These ISU experiences were very instrumental in helping me learn how to appreciate the value of learning and teaching,” said Jones, who also worked as an assistant residence hall coordinator.

Laurie Jones posed

Jones is also part of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps.

While she’s been with CDC for 15 years, Jones’ Ebola response work is through her role with the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps. Her elite team is activated during public health emergencies, such as hurricanes or last year’s influx of undocumented children on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Though the 24-hour news cycle may have moved on, Jones and her colleagues are still working hard every day on Ebola. There have been nearly 10,000 deaths, and more than 24,200 total cases.

Jones too was asked to travel to West Africa, but she was assigned to the post-deployment briefings in part because of her expertise. (Jones has a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling.)

“It’s a pretty big project for us,” she said.

Eventually, Jones will return to her normal post as a health scientist with the National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases, where she works in the scientific resources division.

Although she’s gone on to receive many other degrees and certifications since leaving Illinois State, Jones still draws on what she learned from professors in the Department of Health Sciences. That includes the big-picture emphasis on connecting people to otherwise fragmented health resources.

It’s also the little things. As a student Jones recalls being frustrated when she’d lose points on a paper because of missing punctuation. Now she’s thankful for that critique.

“Attention to detail is important, especially in the work that I’ve done,” she said.

Jones recently reconnected with her alma mater at an event hosted at the CDC by the Atlanta Area Alumni Network, which is led by fellow CDC employee and ISU alum Alan Janssen ’75.

“I’m so appreciative of the great foundation I received at ISU,” Jones said.

Ryan Denham can be reached at rmdenha@IllinoisState.edu.