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Katie McConnell on the job at the Adams County Health Department in Quincy.

Katie McConnell on the job at the Adams County Health Department in Quincy.

Two years after graduating, Health Sciences alumna protects her community from coronavirus

Less than two years after graduating, an Illinois State Health Sciences alumna has found herself on the frontlines of the response to coronavirus (COVID-19).

Katie McConnell ’18, who earned a degree in health promotion and education (HPE), was hired in fall 2018 as an emergency response coordinator for the Adams County Health Department in Quincy. She is responsible for preparing her community for public health threats. When she started, she never imagined herself facing a situation with the magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“When I started, I was told all kinds of stories about the response to H1N1, which was 11 years ago,” said McConnell. “So, never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be responding to COVID-19 in my first year of work.”

“In my everyday operations, I use skills from HPE regularly. The skills I gained in program writing, planning, implementing, and evaluating prepared me for this job and made me excel in other programs within the health department, as well.”–Katie McConnell

Starting last December, McConnell and her team began to listen in on calls from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which was tracking a virus circulating through Wuhan, China. “We started to have conversations, but we didn’t ever think that it would make its way to the United States,” said McConnell. “Then it was here.”

The unpredictable nature of COVID-19 has challenged McConnell and her colleagues.

“Responding to an event that is so unprecedented definitely takes some adapting,” said McConnell. “Every day brings a new challenge and a different scenario to work through. There is always something to learn from, which makes us better and pushes us in the right direction to make sure the residents of our county are safe and healthy.”

McConnell is responsible for writing plans for her community, protecting vulnerable populations such as individuals residing in assisted living facilities, advocating for testing and personal protective equipment, and, most importantly, keeping her community well informed. “We speak daily with our news media and conduct Facebook Live events every day to communicate case count updates, health education, and answer questions from the public regarding their concerns,” said McConnell.

McConnell credits Illinois State’s HPE program in the Department of Health Sciences with sufficiently preparing her to handle the challenges of the pandemic.

“In my everyday operations, I use skills from HPE regularly,” said McConnell. “The skills I gained in program writing, planning, implementing, and evaluating prepared me for this job and made me excel in other programs within the health department, as well.”

She has applied all of those skills in her job, but especially writing and health communication.

“While writing was a major part of my education in HPE, I can’t forget to mention how HPE prepares you to communicate health with populations,” said McConnell. “We have multiple classes that teach us how to communicate and interact with everyone from all walks of life. Using a variety of techniques to get public health messaging across is critical in a time like this.”

From early on, her HPE professors recognized McConnell’s work ethic and passion for the public health field.

Katie McConnell at commencement in 2018.

Katie McConnell at commencement in 2018.

“Katie was an excellent student who early on showed an interest in public health and health policy,” said Associate Professor Dr. Jacqueline Lanier ’96. “She was interested in research and epidemiology and was passionate about the field from the first day that I met her. I am not surprised at all that she has a lead role in the response to this pandemic in her community. I am so very proud of her and the work she is doing.”

While it hasn’t been easy, McConnell is grateful for how her community has united in these uncertain times.

“There are glimpses of hope and highlights all over,” said McConnell. “What I love about small communities is the ability to come together and help out one another, support small businesses, and lend a hand to our vulnerable populations and our frontline workers.”

The support McConnell has received from her colleagues has helped her prevail through the daily obstacles. “I couldn’t have asked for better co-workers, supervisors, directors, and administrators,” said McConnell. “The best part about our collaboration within the health department is that we are all learning together and we are all so passionate about getting information out to the public.”

A proud alumna of the HPE program, McConnell encourages others to consider the public health field. The HPE program offers programs in public health and community health promotion. 

“Working in public health is the most fulfilling experience,” said McConnell. “If you have a passion to help others, play a role in bettering your community, and get satisfaction out of helping any and every one, join the public health team—we would love to have you.”

Learn more about majors offered by the Department of Health Sciences and in Illinois State’s other 150+ fields of undergraduate study by connecting with our academic departments through a virtual session