Our Global Voices Posts

A Steep Learning Curve, Then COVID-19 Hits Home

Posted on by Elizabeth Kurylo, MCM, CCPH, Health Communication Specialist
Elizabeth Kurylo, MCM, CCPH, Health Communication Specialist
Elizabeth Kurylo, MCM, CCPH, Health Communication Specialist

I’ve worked as a health communication specialist on the COVID-19 response for the past year. In Japan, I translated CDC guidance into plain language so Americans quarantined on a cruise ship would understand  the information needed to board a U.S. flight home. In Atlanta, I managed the process to publish international guidance on the CDC website, and the redesign of the global COVID-19 website. I also supported an American Indian tribe in Idaho as they educated, tested, and started to vaccinate more than 6,000 members of their community.

Still, my work did not prepare me for the moment when the coronavirus hit home in December. My 85-year-old father, Michael Kurylo, had trouble breathing. My brother Pete rushed him to a nearby hospital in Davenport, Iowa. Within minutes, Dad was transferred by ambulance to a hospital across the Mississippi River in Illinois with an available ICU bed.

Funeral Card
Michael Kurylo’s funeral Mass and burial was December 14, 2020. Many family members watched the funeral over Facebook Live.

“He has COVID-19 and pneumonia,” Pete told me and my five other siblings who were scattered across the country from northern California to Georgia. He’s in good hands, we told each other. He’s getting medicine and oxygen. He can only get better from here. The next day, the doctors said he might need a ventilator. No, I thought. If he goes on a ventilator, he won’t come off it. At first, Dad agreed to the ventilator. “Do what you need to do,” Dad told the doctor.

I’m not sure why, but he didn’t go on the ventilator. Two days later, his nurse held a phone to Dad’s ear, and we all said goodbye, one at a time, oldest to youngest, including some of his grandchildren. Amazingly, he was alert. We could understand everything he said, and he could hear us. “Love you all,” he said. “We love you, Dad.”

He died the next day. Pete, my sister Monica, and a chaplain were by his side. I was grateful he wasn’t alone.

I watched his funeral via Facebook Live, because it was not safe to travel to Iowa, where he was buried. COVID-19 has killed more than 470,000 Americans, and necessary precautions make it difficult to say goodbye or mourn at a funeral. After working on the COVID-19 response for virtually all of 2020, this was the moment that the global pandemic became deeply personal and painful for me.

Supporting COVID-19 Communication for Americans in Japan

CDC staff have worked on the COVID-19 response in many different ways. I deployed four times, three global assignments and one domestic. Each job had a steep learning curve and required different skills and knowledge. My work with the cruise ship task force was completely different from my work on content for the global COVID-19 website. Each deployment taught me more about COVID-19 and helped prepare me for the next one. Each time, I tried to talk less and listen more.

Little was known about the virus that causes COVID-19 when I flew to Tokyo in February 2020. I reassured my family that everything would be fine. I wasn’t going to see cruise ship passengers in quarantine. Even though we packed N95 medical masks for the trip, we didn’t think we’d be wearing them. “I’m going to be working on a team that meets at the U.S. Embassy,” I told my loved ones. “I’ll be fine.”

We got news updates via a big-screen TV in the embassy auditorium where we worked, elbow to elbow, on our laptops. It soon became clear that COVID-19 was going to be a big deal all over the world.

When I left Tokyo on March 7, everyone on the CDC team was wearing N95 masks. I wore mine on the long flight home to Atlanta, partly because it appeared that people without symptoms could infect others. I did not want to get COVID-19. I took every precaution possible, and so far, I am COVID-19 free.

My Family’s First Brush with COVID-19

COVID-19 Responders
My daughter, who spiked a temperature after returning to Atlanta from studying in Italy in March 2020, waits for emergency workers in protective gear to direct her to an ambulance so she can go to a hospital to be tested for COVID-19. Photo Credit: Jim Walls

As I was flying home, my family had its first unnerving brush with the virus. My husband and two daughters had followed all precautions, including wearing masks, social distancing, staying away from crowds, and handwashing. One daughter, though, was studying in Italy, where the rapid spread of COVID-19 had closed the universities and forced foreign students to leave the country. She returned to Atlanta on the first available flight, then spiked a fever almost immediately after arriving home.

The local health community responded with uncertainty. Her doctor couldn’t fit her in that day. A call to the health department went straight to voicemail. A local hospital invited her to come in, then hesitated and suggested calling 911 instead. Within minutes, an ambulance rolled up, then a fire truck, then a police car. My daughter walked to the ambulance, climbed in, and was driven to the emergency room. After several hours, and several tests, they sent her home, where she waited 4 days in quarantine for her results. She did not have COVID-19.

Working with American Indians on COVID-19

Nine months later, after Dad died, I channeled my grief into working with an American Indian tribe located in southeast Idaho. I volunteered to work with CDC’s Tribal Services Section and looked forward to traveling and learning more about the Shoshone Bannock Tribe. While I worked remotely from my Atlanta home, I still learned a lot about how the tribe communicated with their community of about 6,000 on the Fort Hall Indian Reservation.

Recent CDC studies have shown that American Indian/Alaska Natives are among the racial and ethnic minority groups at higher risk for severe COVID-19 outcomes. CDC has provided more than $200 million in COVID-19 funding to Indian Country, to support tribes and tribal organizations in carrying out COVID-19 preparedness and response activities, including surveillance, epidemiology, laboratory capacity, infection control, and mitigation.

I admire the Fort Hall Business Council’s steely resolve to protect their community. They brief the community once a week through Facebook Live, and worked with CDC to create a public, online dashboard with test results, hospitalizations, deaths, and other COVID-19 data.

They posted short videos of tribal elders talking (in Shoshone and English) about recovering from COVID-19, and the importance of masking, social distancing, handwashing, staying away from large crowds, and treating others with respect. They launched a campaign to “mask up to protect your loved ones,” and printed T-shirts featuring tribal mascot Darryl the Sasquatch wearing a mask. Tribal health workers present on topics such as mental health, stress, and how to ask for help via Zoom. They stress that stigma has no place in their community, and COVID-19 can have an impact on anyone at any time.

It’s anyone’s guess when things will “return to normal,” where we work, live, and play. One thing is certain. The virus is real. It is deadly. Your decision about whether to wear a mask, keep your distance, and wash your hands has an impact on everyone you come into contact with. My father died of COVID-19 because someone else made a choice that eventually affected him. That is hard to accept, but I am learning.

Posted on by Elizabeth Kurylo, MCM, CCPH, Health Communication SpecialistLeave a commentTags

Celebrating the 40th Anniversary of Smallpox Eradication and Learning from its Success

A map illustrating the timeline for global smallpox eradication.

This year, 2020, the world is commemorating the 40-year anniversary of the declaration of the eradication of smallpox. Considered to be the greatest achievement in international public health to date, we have many lessons learned from this monumental achievement that today’s public health professionals can apply to current and future disease outbreak efforts across the Read More >

Posted on by Inger Damon, MD, PhD, FIDSA, Director, Division of High-Consequence Pathogens and Pathology, National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases and Rebecca Martin, PhD, Director, Center for Global HealthLeave a commentTags ,

One Health – A Comprehensive Approach To Preventing Disease, Saving Lives

For as long as people have lived with – and in close proximity to – animals, the benefit of that reality has come with a serious trade-off… the potential for disease. That reality also explains why a One Health approach is used at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to identify and minimize the Read More >

Posted on by CAPT Casey Barton Behravesh MS, DVM, DrPH, DACVPM3 CommentsTags ,

CDC Tanzania and partners: Ensure HIV services amidst the COVID-19 pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about a series of unique structural, logistical, and program challenges related to routine HIV prevention, testing, and treatment services in Tanzania. To better protect healthcare workers and people living with HIV (PLHIV), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Government of Tanzania (GoT), non-governmental partners, and healthcare facilities Read More >

Posted on by Leave a commentTags ,

Voices from the Field: An interview with Anita Beukes, Laboratory Advisor

How is COVID-19 testing conducted in Namibia? Namibia is using semi-automated and automated platforms to conduct viral tests for COVID-19 (molecular real time reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction [RT-PCR]). Testing is conducted at the government laboratories (Namibia Institute of Pathology), as well as at the University of Namibia, and in the private sector (Pathcare and a Read More >

Posted on by Anita Beukes1 Comment

Voices from the Field: Q&A with CDC Namibia Country Director Dr. Eric Dziuban

What is your role in the COVID-19 response for Namibia? As CDC Namibia Country Director, my role is to lead how this office responds to the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes how we support the Ministry of Health and Social Services, the U.S. Embassy in Namibia, and the public. I spend a lot of time working Read More >

Posted on by Dr. Eric Dziuban3 Comments

CDC Team Takes ME/CFS Around the World

Chronic fatigue syndrome, also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis and referred to as ME/CFS, is a debilitating illness that takes away the active lives of people who suffer from it. Between 17 – 24 million people worldwide are thought to have ME/CFS and, in the United States, this illness may affect up to 2.5 million Americans. Read More >

Posted on by Leave a comment

World Meningitis Day 2020

She Knew Something Was Wrong Rahinatou Hamidou Amadou, an 18-year-old woman living in Niger, woke up one morning feeling fine, but by the afternoon knew that something was very wrong. She told her classmates she wasn’t feeling well, and a short time later could barely walk. She began suffering from an intense headache and a Read More >

Posted on by CDC MenAfriNet Team and Serge Ouedraogo, Human Interest DocumentariesLeave a comment

Safe Water Saves Lives- How We Can Combat Cholera

CDC public health engineer Andrea Martinsen works on the Global WASH team within the Division of Global Health Protection (DGHP), where she responds to international disasters, disease outbreaks, and humanitarian crises that threatened the supply and provision of safe drinking water. In September 2018, an outbreak of cholera was declared when 25 patients were first Read More >

Posted on by Andrea MartinsenLeave a comment

Ending the HIV/AIDS Epidemic: Community by Community

Prevention of Mother To Child Transmission Turns Around A Widow’s Life

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a lead agency in the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), works every day with partners to accelerate HIV epidemic control efforts. Communities play a vital role in controlling and ultimately ending the epidemic. A key part of CDC’s efforts in Tanzania includes working with Read More >

Posted on by Leave a comment