Baldwin, Obbink lead efforts to build critical public health structure

By Angie Hunt, News Service

Erin Baldwin portrait

Thielen Student Health Center Director Erin Baldwin has served as incident commander of the university's response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Photos by Ryan Riley (Photos taken with physical distancing measures in place)

AMES, Iowa – Building a public health structure from the ground up in just a matter of months was a monumental task, but an absolutely critical one if Iowa State University was going to complete the fall semester on campus.

Without the benefit of a medical or public health school, it required an all-hands-on-deck effort that drew on the expertise of staff and faculty from a variety of disciplines to have a structure in place before students started moving into the residence halls in early August.

“The speed and efficiency in which we made so many things happen, I still honestly don’t know how we did it all,” said Erin Baldwin, director of ISU’s Thielen Student Health Center (TSHC) and associate vice president for student health and wellness.

As TSHC director, Baldwin was designated as incident commander in January 2020 to lead Iowa State’s emergency response to the pandemic. At the time, she and many others monitoring the virus, including Kristen Obbink, expected COVID-19 would follow a similar epidemiological pattern as H1N1 or SARS. They never imagined the university would still be responding to a global pandemic a year later.  

“As some of us started working remotely in March, I remember taking my stuff home and thinking it would only be a week or two and everything would be back to normal – little did we know,” said Obbink, a public health veterinarian with ISU’s Center for Food Security and Public Health who was tapped to serve as the university’s COVID-19 public health coordinator.

Before stepping into this new role in July, Obbink contributed to the university’s testing strategy and public health plan. Her past experience as a food-borne epidemiologist conducting investigations and surveillance for the Iowa Department of Public Health has been a tremendous asset, but she says no amount of experience could have prepared her for the past year.

“It has been hands down the most challenging thing I’ve ever done in my professional life, as I’m sure a lot of people who have worked on this response would say, but it’s been very rewarding,” Obbink said.

Structure put to the test

Kristen Obbink portrait

After serving on the testing strategy and public health teams, Kristen Obbink took on a new role in July as ISU's COVID-19 public health coordinator. 

As pieces of the public health structure – move-in testing, isolation and quarantine housing, contact tracing and case management – started to fall into place, the system was immediately tested. First, by a derecho on Aug. 10 that knocked out power during move-in testing at Lied Recreation Center. Testing was temporarily suspended as health and housing staff rushed to restructure operations with a limited power supply.

Just two hours later, the testing site was back up and running. While some students had to return the following day, many were able to complete their testing and move into the residence halls as scheduled. The derecho would be one of several hurdles – big and small – that would test the resiliency of the public health structure and the people making it all happen.   

Baldwin and Obbink say one of the greatest challenges came during the first two weeks of the fall semester when Iowa State saw a major spike in cases stemming from several large parties the weekend before classes started. The testing site TSHC was operating out of the ISU Police mobile command vehicle could not accommodate the demands for COVID-19 tests, and it was clear something had to change.

“There was a Saturday morning when we were meeting with senior leaders trying to strategize how we continue and it just felt like the world was crashing down on us,” Baldwin said.

Unbeknownst to Baldwin at the time, Pam Cain, senior vice president for operations and finance, made a call during that meeting to Heather Paris, associate vice president for finance who has a background in health care, and asked her to reach out to Baldwin.

“Heather shows up in my office on that Saturday and asked, ‘How can I help?’ And that is just the Iowa State spirit right there,” Baldwin said. “I was ready to throw up my hands and here comes Heather in this moment of need to step in and we set up an amazing testing center.” 

Targeted testing strategy

The testing center at Johnny’s inside Hilton Coliseum opened in September, increasing testing availability for students, faculty and staff. The additional capacity also supported the university’s targeted testing strategy of identifying and isolating positive cases and quarantining potentially exposed individuals to mitigate risk. It worked and the positivity rate started to fall.

The collaboration among the Emergency Operations Center, campus units and the athletics department to make the Johnny’s testing site a reality was, as Baldwin said, an example of the Iowa State spirit. But it also demonstrated the public health team’s ability to quickly identify a problem and redirect as needed.

“Universities are typically bureaucratic environments and here we are in a situation where you really have to make decisions quickly and big decisions that impact a lot of people,” Obbink said. “By establishing an emergency response structure, it’s allowed us to stay ahead of the game and quickly make science-based, informed decisions. It’s allowed us to be far more nimble.”

Work-life balance in a crisis

A month before Iowa State initiated its emergency response, Obbink and her husband celebrated a significant milestone in their efforts to adopt a child – they were matched with their son. The pandemic slowed and complicated several aspects of the adoption process, including their plans to travel to Africa to bring him home.

“Our child is living halfway around the world and is also being impacted by COVID in his own country,” Obbink said. “For a time, we didn’t have any idea if he was sick or if he was healthy. The whole country just shut down, so our whole process stopped for a little while. It was a lot of additional things that we didn’t have a lot of control over, so we just had to trust that it would work out.”

It has, but the waiting continues. Obbink is hopeful they can travel to Africa in the next six months to meet their son. She and Baldwin say the pandemic has made maintaining a work-life balance even more challenging. When asked how she’s managed work and being a mom, especially when K-12 schools closed in the spring, Baldwin said with a laugh, “not always well.”

“My colleagues have made this manageable,” Baldwin said. “And at the end of the day, I couldn’t do this without the support of family. There are so many people across campus who have had to navigate the demands of work and the needs of family. It’s not an easy balance to find.”

Truly a team effort

In everything they do, Baldwin and Obbink are always mindful of how the decisions they’re influencing will impact students, faculty, staff and the broader community. They’ve had to accept that some decisions will be criticized, but it is their job to do what is best for campus based on the information available at the time.

Finishing the fall semester on campus and returning for the spring wouldn’t be possible without so many people who have stepped up to support public health efforts, Baldwin and Obbink said. They continue to be impressed by the commitment, at every level, to getting the job done even when it’s meant taking on a new role or long hours. They also credit tremendous partnerships with Mary Greeley Medical Center, McFarland Clinic, Story County Public Health and community leaders.

 “We really need to call attention to so many people who have made personal and professional sacrifices to step up and take on these roles to make sure we survived a really challenging situation, and just the dedication, team work and collaboration that has happened,” Baldwin said. “It’s probably one of the only reasons I feel like I survived this past year is because of great colleagues and coworkers, and our leadership trusting that we have people who know their stuff.”

Obbink echoed those comments and said if there is a silver lining to the pandemic it’s that it’s forced us to get out of our silos and work together. As a public health veterinarian, she would like to see that collaboration continue once the pandemic is over, as well as a greater appreciation for public health.

“This is the first time in my lifetime where public health is really front and center. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you live, it has affected you. While everyone may not like all aspects of public health, this has definitely raised awareness of why it’s so important,” Obbink said. “If there’s one other positive that comes from COVID, it’s just the general awareness of the value of public health and why it matters for everybody.”

Read the series 

Learn more about ISU’s pandemic response in a collection of stories highlighting some of the hard work, dedication and collaboration across campus.