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Alumni Spotlights

Vickie Swinehart, ’81: Ensuring the Health of Her Community

  • on May 7, 2021
  • by Lisa McMahon, M.A.'09
  • in

When Vickie (Carson) Swinehart, ’81, accepted a position as a home care nurse in Seneca County, N.Y.’s Department of Public Health, she was looking for a work schedule that aligned with the demands of raising her family. What she found was a challenging and rewarding career that has spanned nearly 30 years.

Today, as director of public health, Swinehart is doing something else she never expected: leading her community’s efforts in battling a global pandemic. She says it is an “extreme example” of the kinds of things she has been doing since she first transitioned from the emergency room, where she had spent the majority of her nursing career at that point, into public health.

She started as a public health nurse in the county’s certified home health agency in 1992, then was promoted to supervising public health nurse, director of patient services and, in 2003, to her current position. Ironically, one of her most notable accomplishments within the department was decertifying the home care agency that first brought her into the realm of public health.

“At the time, we were one of the first in our area to do that,” she said. “When home care started, it was logical to be done out of the health department,” but as the years progressed, they couldn’t compete with the private agencies. “Because we were so small, we were pulling staff from some of our public health programs to cover the home care when we’d get a lot of patients.” She said that the decision, while difficult, was “the right thing to do and the right direction to take at the time.” Now, she adds, few health departments still retain their own certified home health agencies.

As a full-service health department serving approximately 35,000 residents of that area of the Finger Lakes, Swinehart’s office manages both traditional public health prevention, wellness, community outreach, and health education programs (like early intervention and preschool programs for children with developmental delays and a tuberculous control program) as well as consumer safety and environmental health services such as restaurant and pool inspections.

This two-fold focus was critical in managing a Hepatis A outbreak in 2015, Swinehart notes.

“The environmental health staff initiated the response with the restaurant to find out how many meals were served, while the nurses were concentrating on investigating the patients,” she said. 

Swinehart’s staff learned of the outbreak on a Thursday night, when a foodservice worker tested positive for Hepatitis A. After assessing the magnitude of the outbreak and its risk to the community, they set up a vaccination clinic 48 hours later, where 3,000 people were inoculated against the highly contagious disease over the course of a week. Their efforts were recognized with a proclamation signed by New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo. 

“That was really something special for us,” she said.

Swinehart said that experience validated the efficiency of the emergency preparedness plans they have in place, and confirmed the effectiveness of an alliance she helped to develop with health departments in seven other counties in the Finger Lakes region to facilitate a collaborative response to public health emergencies. She notes that this was the first time she invoked the assistance of the alliance, which was established in 2003.

The Hep A outbreak strengthened that alliance, and the coronavirus pandemic reinforced the need for the collaboration, she said, especially as they worked to develop protocols and isolation and quarantine orders. 

In the first few months of 2020, Swinehart’s team was fielding thousands of calls every day from doctors who wondered if they needed to test patients exhibiting symptoms and from residents who had questions about the novel virus.

“Those first few months were just hectic,” she said. “No one who doesn’t work in public health can begin to understand what this last year has been like. When other businesses were closed, public health was working 24/7.”

In addition to developing the protocols, Swinehart and her staff were called on to do the investigations necessary to place and monitor people in isolation and quarantine, and to enforce the governor’s executive orders around masking and social distancing. When vaccines became available, they set up clinics. One unique challenge they face in vaccinating their population is the Amish and Mennonite communities that reside in their county. 

“They are pretty resistant to getting the vaccine,” Swinehart said, “but we’re trying to reach out to them.” 

Now that the demand for testing has decreased and that for vaccines has leveled off, Swinehart is focusing on providing guidance and education as COVID requirements relax. She is working with businesses to help them understand evolving capacity requirements, and with the schools to help them prepare for the return of sports and other activities. She has planned a vaccination clinic specifically for 16- and 17-year-olds to inoculate them before prom and graduation, and says she is “preparing for the worst and hoping for the best” as the warmer weather brings more people together outdoors. 

“People want to get back to normal,” she acknowledged, “but the message has to be ‘Let’s hang on a little bit longer, let’s get more of our population vaccinated, let’s try and get a handle on this, we don’t want to open up too soon.’”

While the COVID pandemic has presented her with unprecedented challenges, it also has given her one of her proudest career moments, when she accepted a Paul Harris Fellow Award from the Seneca Falls Rotary Club, the highest recognition that Rotary can bestow upon its members. Swinehart and her team were honored for their leadership and service to the community during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The fact that our department was honored based on the work that we had done so far through COVID was very humbling,” she said.

Although Swinehart (who is proud to say that only one other county health director in the state has served longer than she has) never envisioned a career in public health, she says that the education she received at Niagara gave her “the confidence that I could do something different.”

“That’s one of the beauties of nursing,” she said. “There are different kinds of nursing that you can do.”