Two years in, this public health leader remains focused on pandemic protections in Amarillo

By Sally Crocker  

Sph Alum Casie Stoughton

It has been a long, challenging two years for public health professionals working on the front lines of their communities in response to COVID-19.

Casie Stoughton, MPH, RN, Director of Public Health for the Amarillo Department of Public Health, understands the challenges well, from the initial months in early 2020 when COVID-19 outbreaks were first reported, through today, as efforts continue to keep citizens updated and protected from the virus and its variants.

Stoughton, a 2015 graduate of The University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth School of Public Health MPH program, has been with Amarillo Public Health for nearly 19 years, first as a part-time immunization nurse, then as Immunization Manager, epidemiologist, Communicable Disease Program Manager and Assistant Director of Public Health, becoming the community’s Public Health Director in 2014.

Protections, interventions

The community’s pandemic preparedness started in early 2020, with the first COVID-19 case reported in mid-March.

An exhibit hall in the local civic center was established as the community’s contact tracing site, with drive-thru testing at a different location.

As vaccines became available, additional civic center space was carved out for a walk-in clinic with hours of operation five days a week, some evenings and on certain Saturdays. The centralized civic center stations gave staff the flexibility to move between contact tracing and vaccines based on each day’s demands.

“Our number one goal was to take care of patients safely and quickly,” Stoughton said.

More than 70 computer stations were set up for contact tracing. Staffing grew from 39 to 100 workers during peak times, thanks to the support of library and other city staff, as well as nearby school nurses who gave their time during campus closures and class breaks.

Processes and paperwork were made easier for seniors and citizens with special needs, to speed them through vaccinations as efficiently as possible. The department had a strong immunization model already in place when COVID-19 hit, following Amarillo’s own best practices established in 2009 for H1N1 vaccines and followed annually since then for city employee flu protections. Because Amarillo can see extreme weather conditions during winter months, the department’s COVID-19 response efforts were built around making sure no one had to line up or wait outside for services.

A monoclonal antibody infusion center was established as well, in collaboration with the Texas Department of Emergency Management, for early treatment of high-risk COVID-19 patients. More than 6,323 patients have been treated since September 2021, with the local health authority praising these efforts for helping the community avoid a total health care collapse during a difficult time.

For the first few months of the pandemic, the department held three press conferences a week to be sure citizens stayed updated and knew how to access accurate, up-to-the-minute information. Speakers included Stoughton on behalf of the public health department, chief medical officers from area hospitals, Amarillo’s mayor and city manager, and the local health authority. The schedule geared down to weekly and then biweekly as conditions improved, and by February, press conferences were announced only as needed, although the leadership team continues to collaborate regularly.

The scope

About 260,000 people reside in or near Amarillo – the territory includes Potter and Randall counties, as well as states bordering Texas. Amarillo Public Health is considered a hub in helping to care for these citizens.

“We are viewed as the capital of the Panhandle,” Stoughton said. “Oklahoma, Louisiana, southern Kansas, eastern New Mexico and Colorado – we are very close to all these states. Citizens come here to visit the doctor and access other health care services, to shop at the mall and visit local grocery stores. The interstate activity in this area is a very natural thing, and these families look to our department for their public health needs.”

It’s a broad territory, and for Amarillo Public Health during the pandemic, resiliency has been the name of the game. As citizens’ needs and the virus evolved, the department adapted. There was a lot of teamwork, camaraderie, exhaustion, challenge, some tears and many victories along the way.

“When most of us think of an emergency, we picture something that will be intense for a short amount of time, but this pandemic has been with us for a very long period,” Stoughton said.  “This type of work calls for strong people who are able to withstand daily pressures like those our field has experienced every day since 2020 – that’s what a public health professional is about.”

The challenges

As the safety net of the community, public health’s job calls for the ability to see the big picture, Stoughton said, the readiness “to do the things that nobody else does,” and the willingness to work hard every day, no matter how daunting the challenges.

“Our staff members have families to care for in addition to our community,” she said. “We all have loved ones who have gotten sick, and we have grieved with one another. We have called daily to check on our patients and provide support, and we have sometimes reached out to learn that a dear family member has passed away during the night. The contributions of these dedicated and outstanding team members are very much needed and appreciated. If you have to go through a crisis, these are the people you want by your side.”

Stoughton, too, was pulled in many directions both professionally and personally during the pandemic. While putting in about six days a week leading public health’s initiatives for the community, she also balanced the needs of a growing family at home, including a toddler who went through potty training in 2020.

The payoff

“We have an amazing community and amazing public health and city staff,” she said. “It has taken a lot of hope, especially when times were most difficult, and all of us pulling together as a team to put in the hard work up front, following through and adapting as needed day by day.

“It’s not always easy, but it’s definitely worth it. That’s why we’re here.”

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