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Alumni Spotlights

Protecting Her Community Behind the Scenes

  • on March 29, 2021
  • by Lisa McMahon, MA'09
  • in

In the first few weeks of 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic spread throughout the United States, county health directors across New York state began to meet and plan strategies to mitigate the outbreak’s impact in their regions. Mary (Welch) Beer, B.S.’77, director of public health for Ontario County, felt well-prepared for the challenge. 

“This is what public health does,” she says.

When the first case in her county appeared in mid-March, Beer drew on her experience from the annual disaster drills she has taken part in, lessons learned from the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, and her more than 40 years in nursing to direct the county’s response, which included implementing safety guidelines, investigating and containing outbreaks, and overseeing public communication for the county’s more than 100,000 residents.

Since then, Beer, with her team of 20, has performed contact tracing, enforced quarantine and isolation protocols, provided invaluable guidance to healthcare providers, businesses, school districts, and the higher education sector and, most recently, established drive-through and pop-up clinics to administer the COVID-19 vaccines to their diverse population. Collaboration and flexibility have been key strategies, she says, noting that mutual aid agreements with neighboring counties, and a recent multi-jurisdictional accreditation—the first and only in the country—have paved the way for these small, rural counties to work together in combating the pandemic. She has also added to her staff and adopted a new software system to better track and respond to cases.

Beer is quick to acknowledge that the success her county has had in managing the current health crisis is a team effort.

“It’s not about me,” she says. “It’s about how you work with a bunch of people and delegate and empower them and get out of their way so they can do a great job.” She says that she is proud of the way her staff has come together to respond to the coronavirus and is amazed by the way members of her community have volunteered to support their efforts.

Beer admits that she “never dreamed in a million years that I would do a job like this” when she first enrolled in Niagara University’s College of Nursing. She just knew she wanted to be a nurse because she wanted to make a difference, she says.

Following her graduation in 1977, Beer started her nursing career at the bedside at St. Mary’s Hospital in Rochester, N.Y. Her supervisors quickly saw her leadership potential and she was promoted to team leader after only a year and a half. Shortly thereafter, she was named nurse manager on a med surg neuroscience unit.

“Niagara creates leaders,” she says, “and it’s not even something that you may recognize, but you’re given the tools. It’s built into the program.”

After a decade at the hospital, Beer wanted to try a different nursing path (“Don’t let fear hold you back, there are so many opportunities in nursing to explore,” she advises) so she accepted a position with Blue Cross/Blue Shield as manager of utilization review and quality assurance. In the years that followed, Beer took positions as a recruiter for nurses and physicians; as an account and product manager for a claims editing software company; as director of Eldersource, a community-based information, assistance, and care management organization; and as director of clinical services at Visiting Nurse Service of Rochester and Monroe County (she notes that the other four directors were also Niagara graduates). She also earned a master’s degree in public health from Walden University.

These experiences prepared her for her current role as public health director, she says, which she took on in 2008.

“I’ve worked in almost every setting,” she says. “I’ve worked in primary care, I’ve worked in nursing homes, I’ve worked in hospital settings, I worked in the insurance industry. All of the skills that I had from those different jobs built on one another, and this ended up being a really good fit for me in terms of what I had learned over the years.”

In this role, Beer oversees disease prevention, health education promotion, and community health protection for Ontario county, which is located eight miles from Rochester in upstate New York. It includes two cities, 16 towns, and eight villages.

“I think public health has always been the best-kept secret, because we are the protectors behind the scenes,” she says. “But at the same time, it’s been one of my goals to make sure that my staff are not just inwardly focused, but really out in the community.”

To that end, Beer and her staff are active on, and often lead, boards and collaborations to identify trends and meet the health needs of their community. Under her leadership, coalitions to prevent suicide and to support and facilitate breastfeeding have been established. Her advocacy efforts in prohibiting smoking on county property have reduced smoking rates, and she has developed programs to decrease obesity, manage hypertension, and fight the opioid crisis, in addition to managing ongoing communicable disease, lead prevention, rabies, disaster preparedness, and TB programs.

“Unfortunately, so much of that has been put aside as we’ve been focusing on COVID,” she says.

In this job, and throughout her career, Beer is proud of the fact that she has been able to maintain the passion for serving others that first inspired her to pursue nursing as a career. She recalls her father, William, an NU graduate from the Class of 1953, offering her advice as he dropped her off on her first day on the job at the hospital: “Always keep who you are, and hold on to that.”

So experiences like a chance meeting with a woman whose husband suffered a stroke are especially meaningful for Beer. The woman expressed her gratitude for the kindness Beer showed her years before, when she arranged to have a steak dinner and champagne delivered to the man’s hospital room so he and his wife could celebrate their anniversary. A year later, he passed away.

“I’m proud that I touched her life and made a really difficult day a little bit better for them,” she said.