Area Alumni Address COVID-19: Whatcom Unified Command

As we grapple with COVID-19 and its effects on every aspect of our community, several WWU alumni are working hard to inform our community on the latest statistics and updates, as well as to plan for the challenging days when this pandemic is behind us and we begin to gather in public again.

Riley SweeneyRiley Sweeney (’08, Communication Studies)

As communications officer and recreation coordinator for the City of Ferndale, I usually spend my spring recruiting food trucks and bands for Food Truck Fridays, our most popular parks and rec event. Instead, I’m synthesizing medical studies and drafting web material on social distancing. When the pandemic first began, the Whatcom County Health Department put out a call for trained and experienced public communications professionals, and I answered the call. Now I work almost full time for the Emergency Operations Center as part of the Joint Information Center, where I work with a mix of communication and health personnel to help push out public messages during this crisis. 

Each morning, I join a video huddle with the team and set the messaging priorities for the day. The hardest part is keeping up. There are always new guidelines, programs being developed, or resources for the public, and all of that needs to be researched, drafted, vetted, and published swiftly. I’m thankful for my experience at WWU, especially the professional communication classes I took with professors Karen Stout and Bonnie Southcott that helped provide the nuts and bolts skills required. While the work is stressful, I’m appreciative of the opportunity to make an impact on the crisis rather than being stuck waiting for it to pass. Stay home, stay healthy, and wash your hands in the hopes that we can all enjoy a Food Truck Friday at some point in the future.

Chris D’Onofrio Chris D’Onofrio (’08, Psychology)

What is it like day-to-day inside the response team? 
I can't speak on behalf of the entire response team because there are hundreds of people involved, but I think it's safe to say that there is a lot happening. In the first week or two, it was a strange mix of excitement, anxiety, grief, and determination. Everyone is taking this very seriously, but it also feels surreal at times, too. This is an extremely challenging time for us, but we're also aware that we have a real opportunity to reduce the amount of loss our community experiences. I'm a member of the Joint Information Center (communications branch), and we try hard to plan and be proactive, but sometimes the events or news of the day forces us to go in different directions than we'd anticipated. We have a virtual meeting every morning and lay out our priorities for the day and assign tasks. Then, we work together (remotely) to get as much done as we can. We'll have another virtual meeting towards the end of the day to check in and see where we need to adjust based on what has happened (or what we've learned) in the last five or six hours. It's intense, but it keeps us moving forward, and it feels like we're able to provide some important guidance for a huge number of people who are struggling to make sense of what is happening in the world.

Reports say that we've done well in flattening the curve. What could we as citizens do better?
Personally, I'm impressed with how this community has pulled together over the last month, and I think that's worth celebrating. The most important thing for citizens to do now is to stay strong and not let up. The next phase is going to be especially difficult, because as things get better, it's going to be harder to stay disciplined. We'll see the rate of new cases decrease, and we'll be tempted to start getting complacent again. The hard work and sacrifices we've all made over the last several weeks will be lost if we rush back to doing things the way we did before. It has to be a slow, smart progression in order to avoid a second wave of infections. Picture a slowly turning dial, not a switch being flipped.

Do you have any stories or anecdotes to share?
Every crisis presents opportunities. As we grieve together, let us also grow and recover together so that we can emerge more connected and more concerned for one another than we were previously. This illness is not impacting everyone equally, and I hope the story will end with greater recognition and support for the vulnerable populations that had so much less security to fall back on.

How has it been for you? Are you doing okay?
This has been tough. But I'm grateful that I'm able to stay engaged, and that I spend my days with wonderful and inspiring colleagues who are working hard every day. I'm lucky because my wife and I have both been able to keep our jobs and because we get to spend our evenings with our rambunctious toddler who is totally unfazed by this whole thing. These are stressful times, and of course I'm worried about the thousands of people who are out of work, and long-term social and economic impacts that we're going to see over the next year or two. But there's nowhere I'd rather be right now, and I'm confident that we'll get through this, together.

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