The Columbus Health Commissioner says: “I know it can be difficult for people to change their lives as dramatically as we have over the last couple of weeks, but in the big scheme of things, you're just being asked to stay in the safety of your home."

Columbus Health Commissioner Dr. Mysheika Roberts is passionate about public health and the role it plays in achieving the greatest good. She could not have foreseen the impact it now has as the city confronts the coronavirus contagion, getting closer to Columbus each day.

“I feel a tremendous amount of responsibility as city health commissioner, and that responsibility feels even more significant at a time like this. When I signed up to go into public health and to be the health commissioner, I knew there would be some tough days and there would be some tough decisions to make,” Roberts says. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d encounter a worldwide pandemic.

“Today I feel good about where we’re at. At this point, hospital capacity looks good, but we have not hit the worst of it. We are still at the very beginning. If you talk to me in two weeks, I might have a very different answer.”

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As is oft-noted, a spirit of collaboration serves Columbus well in times of crisis. “I’ve been working with many of our response partners for years. The four health systems have a really good relationship with us and with each other. It allows us to respond collectively. Not all communities have that,” Roberts says.

Twice a week, she confers with them and others on the front lines, such as the Ohio Hospital Association, the Central Ohio Trauma System and the Ohio Health Care Association, which represents elder-care facilities. Seven days a week, the city health department’s incident command center shares updates on case numbers, supply needs and issues that have arisen in the last 24 hours. The department keeps tabs on the city’s homeless shelters and whether its employees who work in sensitive areas may have been exposed to the virus.

Pandemic or not, the city must maintain its essential public health services, such as its STD and tuberculosis clinics, the latter being operated remotely in most cases. The women’s clinic remains open by appointment only, and the Women Infant and Children clinic area is roped off into social-distancing sections, with signs for instruction. In some cases, “We put a mask on mom and get them in and out as quickly as possible,” Roberts says

Everyone entering the Columbus Public Health building on Parsons Avenue is screened, including the more than 250 staff members who still come to work every day. Employees with temperatures or respiratory problems are sent home. The city still performs inspections at restaurants offering pick-up or delivery.

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As a steward of public health, Roberts feels frustrated when she sees people disregarding Gov. Mike DeWine’s stay-at-home order. “I know it can be difficult for people to change their lives as dramatically as we have over the last couple of weeks, but in the big scheme of things, you’re just being asked to stay in the safety of your home. You’re not being asked to go out on the frontlines and battle this, she says. “Please listen to us. We have your health, your life and our community’s livelihood at the forefront of our minds. In thinking about the future, what does it look like after this?”

What worries her most are the unknowns. “We don’t know how long we’re going to be in this. For all of us really, our lives are on hold, our lives are in limbo.” While people probably feel powerless, “We do have a lot of power. We have control over our behaviors, both as individuals and as families.”

She says Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton “is serving as a great model. She is  being honest with people while being supportive and caring. I think that is something that we as women have the ability to do, and she is doing it and leading the way.”

The support Roberts receives from her team, city leaders and family helps sustain her during trying times. Her faith carries her through.

“As a public health leader in this community I have tremendous hope, and I would hope that everyone has a tremendous amount of hope that we will get through this. “I truly believe that when we get to the other end of this we will be stronger.”

Laurie Allen is a freelance writer for Columbus CEO.