MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Like many essential workers during this pandemic, Candice Davenport hasn’t had a day off in many weeks. As the still-new Health Officer for Maplewood — she started on Jan. 2 — she stepped into the job not knowing a pandemic was around the corner.
In dealing with the sudden crisis during the past two months, “I’m pulling a lot of tools from my arsenal,” she said. “I didn’t ever think I’d have to use them all at once.” Those tools include not only a nursing background — she has worked in a pediatric intensive care unit — but also a master’s in public health and work experience in bioterrorism, emergency preparedness, and academia.
“She was hired into the role to replace the retiring Bob Roe and became a leader on day one,” said Mayor Frank McGehee. “Her management and leadership during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has been phenomenal. Not only is she administering the logistics and operational components at a high-level, but she has brought compassion and expertise to each and every resident and their household impacted by this horrible pandemic.”
Deputy Mayor Dean Dafis, who also serves as chair of the Board of Health, also raved about Davenport. Seeing her and her team in action inspired him to write an op-ed about the importance of the department.
“I knew that Candice was going to be the future of our public health department," Dafis said. "Even under Bob” — who retired after decades in the position — “she had started exhibiting a vision for a department that was better integrated” into other township departments. She saw that “public health and wellness should be part of all of our decision-making.” She had already begun expanding what the department did to include focusing on mental health awareness, suicide prevention, and outreach into the schools under Roe's tenure.
Currently, Davenport and Maplewood’s Health Nurse, Anna Markarova, interview each patient diagnosed with COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. “[We are] doing all these case investigations. Each case investigation is an epidemiological window into what’s happening, so we’re seeing on a micro-level what changes and who’s affected over time.” Markarova is new to the department, and has a background in public health and a BS in nursing. It’s a good combination to have, said Davenport: “It helps to have that wider lens and the clinical lens.”
Taking care of a township with close to 25,000 residents — in thinking of the number, she stressed the importance of being counted in the census to ensure future public health funding — isn’t easy. ‘They are long days,” she acknowledged. In addition to interviewing cases, “we create care packages for our residents who need face masks and are [COVID-19] positive.”
And how is Maplewood doing? “The social distancing measures, and the fact that people are following them, has been very beneficial to our community. We’re performing as best as we can.”
She is heartened to see everyone doing their part during the crisis. “Individual decisions make up the health of our community. That couldn’t be more important than now… You see this now in the pandemic.”
“I see how this works epidemiologically. I see how this works in terms of policy, governance, from a global level to a local level,” she added. Decisions to close businesses, limit contact, and encourage social distancing, “it all has an impact,” said Davenport, who not only works for the town, but lives in Maplewood as well. “If our governmental leaders are on board — or not — you definitely see a difference in how people behave.”
The significance of staying home is never to be underestimated, she said. “There is a one to two percent fatality rate, so if we didn’t do the social distancing, if we just let this whole thing ride… with 25,000 people in Maplewood, that’s 250 to 500 cases, families [affected], people who would have died. It’s significant. That’s what we’re doing. We’re preventing that.”
Each death “is significant to us at the health department,” she said. They have been coaching the families and supporting them through their illness. “We get to know each of the families that we interview,” she said. “We listen to them about how it spread and how did they get it and in the beginning we saw people who were traveling… and [then] it was working in the city, using mass transportation and as we pulled back even further and as people are staying home we’re not seeing those cases anymore.
“All of these measures to keep people at home helps keep the rate of disease we’re seeing lower than it would be” without them, she noted. “However, on the flip side of that, the virus in this pandemic and the response has highlighted that there are essential workers that maybe people didn’t recognize before.”
Not only the healthcare providers, the technicians and aids, the custodians who work at the hospitals, she said, but also the ride share and public transit drivers, grocery store workers, postal workers: “If you didn’t stay home, there would be more cases. [Some] families…are sacrificing their family member to help people get better, and recover, and get to their doctor – we are intricately connected. It’s a beautiful, fantastic web of how we’re connected.”
“It’s really important for people to understand: every connection that you make, as small and nuanced as you think it is, makes a big difference to preventing more cases. Each connection is significant, because you think you’re only having a connection with these six people, or two people, but those two people also had connections with two more people,” she added.
“We need to be grateful for being at home with the people we love if we are lucky enough to be home with them, because there are people who have family members who are hospitalized because they were working for us, and they are now hospitalized or in critical care, and they can’t be with their family.” When Davenport takes a moment to catch her breath, it is evident that she cares about each of the families she has met and cared for.
“To be ill and all alone, and for the family member to not be with them — it’s catastrophic on an individual family level but as a society we need to understand that is what we’re doing is for them. It’s to prevent that from happening more. And I’m proud of how Maplewood has stepped up and is really taking this seriously.”
For the next step, as we wait for a vaccine to be developed, she said, “What we really need to do is push our lawmakers and our private companies… to be making more masks, more wipes, more Purell,” and the mass production of tests. Widespread testing is “the only way we are going to be able to do effective isolation and contact tracing” and bring the quarantine to a swift resolution, she said.
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Read More: Maplewood Coronavirus Update
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