From everyday epidemiologist to health hero, Dr. Jennifer Dillaha reflects on year with COVID-19

KNWA

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) — Shortly before a Zoom interview on the one-year anniversary of the pandemic, the epidemiologist unmuted her microphone and started with the standard opening: “I’m Jennifer Dillaha. J-E-N-N-I-F-E-R, D-I-L-L-A-H-A. I’m the State Epidemiologist and Medical Director for Immunizations and Outbreak Response for the Arkansas Dept. of Health.”

The interview’s beginning was familiar, like the frameless specs and curly shoulder-length hair that Arkansans associate with Dr. Dillaha. Though the words were methodical like always, they were reflective and personal—a shift in tone.

“Some of us were reflecting today on the gratitude we have for being able to play a role that we’re trained for, were prepared for,” Dilaha said. “It hasn’t always been fun. Sometimes it’s been really hard work.”

Dillaha is a leading figure in Arkansas’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic. She conducts daily interviews with local reporters, and she filled in for Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) during a weekly COVID-19 presser he couldn’t attend. She often stands behind the governor during these pressers, offering a scientific voice to explain complex data and changing information.

“In the beginning, doing the interviews and facing the public and the media caused me a fair amount of internal anxiety,” Dillaha said. “I did what I call, ‘internal squirming.’ I decided that this is something I needed to do.”

Dillaha said she and others at the ADH began preparing for the threat of COVID-19 months prior to its arrival in the state.

“We were getting ready when we realized the pandemic was heading our way,” Dillaha said. “Some of us haven’t had any days off, and some of us have been working really long hours. It’s important to us to be able to make a contribution to do something for the people of the state of Arkansas.”

When the first COVID-19 case was announced in Arkansas, Dillaha was there. When the first Arkansan died, Dillaha was there. When people lashed out at health officials for going too far or not going far enough, turning to social media to air toxic rhetoric, Dillaha was there. When the first vaccines arrived, Dillaha was there.

Through the highs and the lows, Dillaha was there.

“I remember thinking to myself that this is going to hit us hard,” Dillaha said. “There’ll be widespread disease, and I was really worried about the hospitals being overwhelmed. We came a little close this winter, but the leadership of the hospitals in the state did a really good job of preventing that from happening.”

Arkansas COVID-19 statistics posted by the Dept. of Health on Thursday. (Credit: ADH Twitter)

As of March 11, ADH statistics showed 5,410 total Arkansans have died from the virus. There have been 326,040 total cases, and nearly 15,000 people have been hospitalized for the virus. COVID-19’s ravaged Arkansas and every other state, taking loved ones’ lives, closing businesses and ruining livelihoods. Over the last few weeks, the numbers have looked better.

“We were fortunate enough to see a downturn in the number of cases, which we are continuing to see,” Dillaha said. “This whole year has been one of continued, focused anxiety, concern and then a ray of hope when the vaccines became available.”

Dillaha said she remembers that time well, the first positive period she experienced since pre-March 2020.

“I remember coming home one day, opening up my computer to do some more work at home,” Dillaha said. “I put in a CD of choral music, and the first song that came out was the ‘Hallelujah Chorus.’ Kind of halfway listening to that, it lifted my spirits, and I thought to myself, ‘My word, we are going to get vaccine.'”

What came next? Dillaha said she did a “happy dance.”

“I’m a fairly reserved person, so to see me do a happy dance, I surprised even myself, you know?” Dillaha said. “This is something that’s going to continue to make a big difference for Arkansas with regard to the pandemic.”

Dillaha said she’d just started her new role with the ADH when the pandemic hit. Nobody could’ve prepared her for what the job would entail.

“It did not dawn on me what I’d agreed to do with this job,” Dillaha said, laughing.

Reassurance from family convinced Dillaha to take on the responsibility she now bares. Any misspoken statistic could come back to haunt her. Changing information could cause people to question her integrity. People from all political ideologies have questioned the state’s medical approach.

Through it all, she’s stayed even-keeled.

“I felt, with the encouragement of my family, friends and coworkers, that I could do this, and I could make a difference for Arkansas,” Dillaha said. “I’m just really glad to do it.”

There have been negatives, sure, but Dillaha spent much of her reflection on the positives. This includes encouraging feedback from Arkansans, who sent letters, wrote cards and patted her on the back (metaphorically, of course).

“My sons are really proud of me, and that makes me feel really good,” Dillaha said. “I got a letter just the other day from a relative who’s in their 90s wanting me to know that they’re proud of me, and my parents who are both gone…they said they thought my parents would be really proud of me.”

Dillaha made one thing clear: the pandemic is not over. It’s not close to being over yet. She likened humanity’s battle with COVID-19 to a Razorback basketball game she once watched: the Hogs took several overtime periods to outlast their opponent, but by sticking to what worked, they ultimately won.

“We need to minimize its spread, get as many people vaccinated as possible until the pandemic is over,” Dillaha said. “We cannot let up before it is.”

This comment came up when Dillaha was asked what her plan was after the pandemic, when she’ll no longer be called on for multiple interviews each day and will finally have some free time.

“I will think about what I’ll do after the pandemic later when the pandemic is over,” Dillaha said.

Vaccine distribution is Dillaha’s main focus now, and she said that’ll continue to be the case. For the woman who’ll undoubtedly find her name in Arkansas history books, she hopes widespread vaccination makes up the final chapter of this period.

“No one is safe from COVID-19 until we’re all safe from COVID-19,” Dillaha said.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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