Like public health officers around the state and country, Dr. Brian Gee’s role wasn’t terribly demanding before the COVID-19 outbreak.
Gee, a longtime physician who specializes in emergency care, mainly spent his time as a frontline provider, seeing patients at the Lander Medical Clinic. His Fremont County Health Officer role, which he assumed following appointment by the county commission in 2018, occupied about 20-30 hours a month, he said.
In that capacity, he advised community entities about issues like flood potential or influenza tracking, and kept tabs on public health matters. Pretty benign stuff.
Then a global pandemic struck down in Gee’s county, and everything changed.
Gee, like public health officers around the nation, suddenly became a key cog in a dizzying logistical machine, a crucial liaison between the healthcare community and government officials, and a person many look to for answers in what is likely the most serious public health crisis they’ve ever experienced.
With 12-hour days that are now packed with meetings and decision making, it’s safe to say that the health officer gig has become his full-time job. Dr. Gee hasn’t seen patients for weeks.
With a level-headed frankness that has defined his style through the outbreak, he acknowledges that his life is far from the only one that’s been upended by the pandemic.
“This has been a whirlwind, absolutely,” he said. “It’s definitely a tectonic shift in how to think about your day-to-day life.”
Like most healthcare professionals, Gee was more aware than the general public that the outbreak held the potential for major disruptions. He started watching it carefully in February, he said, and began initiating discussions with regional hospitals, schools and officials about precautions. (Initial recommendations were focused on travelers from China and called for patients to be examined in a reverse-isolation room. Those guidelines have long been thrown out the window in favor of updated protocols.)
Like everyone else, Gee’s personal life started seeing impacts. He had international travel plans, including a volunteer medical trip to Nepal. As he watched COVID-19 spread around the world, he said, its gravity began to sink in.
“And then once you start to see it in the U.S., you realize, OK, it’s here, we’re going to have to change our plans personally and professionally,” he said.
On March 11, a resident of the Showboat Retirement Center in Lander tested positive, the first of what would quickly blossom into a hotspot in the state. Gee spent that weekend with State Health Officer Alexia Harrist and her team investigating the case.
“Then it kind of took off from there,” Gee said — an accelerated trajectory of education, preparation, communication, adaptation and reaction that has all become a bit of a blur.
By the end of March, he said, his routine had transformed. “It’s pretty much, I get up and from 7 o’clock to probably 7 o’clock there’s conversation either in my car or at my house or here at the Incident Command Center” with doctors, business leaders, healthcare professionals, government officials or other groups, trying to network and problem solve.
Gee has helped manage medical-equipment supply chain logistics for the county (he said this week he feels the current supply is adequate, but providers are “really trying to conserve. It’s always on everybody’s mind.”) He’s funneled information to schools and church groups and weighed in on decisions around emergency declarations and closures.
He’s turned into the public face of the county’s effort, taking questions at press conferences, appearing in public service announcements and acting as a spokesperson for proper precautions. He helps fields the questions in a website devoted entirely to COVID-related queries from the community. He’s been a vocal advocate for social distancing, self-quarantining and most recently, wearing masks while out in public.
“It’s been, yeah, quite a bit different than my day-to-day clinical life,” Gee said. “Obviously it’s changed me from clinical provider to thinking about planning and bigger picture contingency stuff, while still trying to be in touch with the clinical providers on a daily basis, trying to facilitate their needs.”
He’s also been instrumental in an effort to convey the scope of the problem more accurately than the state’s limited testing numbers are able to. The incident management team has started tracking the number of patients with COVID-19-like symptoms who healthcare providers direct to self isolate at home. While the county has just 38 confirmed cases, the number of patients directed to self isolate is around 750 — a number officials use to convey the outbreak’s seriousness.
“What we’re doing now in Fremont County I think will be used by other counties in terms of number crunching and getting a sense of what the illness really is in the community,” Fremont County Commissioner Mike Jones, the incident management team’s public information officer, said. Jones gives a lot of credit to Gee.
“We couldn’t have been luckier,” Jones said. “The guy is tireless and he’s unflappable.”
With suspected community spread and widespread infection in Fremont County, Gee’s pace has been non-stop.
Does he ever get a chance to stop and contemplate how it’s upended his own life?
“I think like probably anybody, there’s that underlying thought of you wanting to rest and exercise and eat well and be with the people you care about, I think that’s hard,” he said. “I think all of us are dealing with that.”
He does worry, he said. He worries about his healthcare provider friends who are exposed to the virus, about his elderly parents in the Midwest and about all the people experiencing hardship.
“There’s job loss for some people, there’s anxiety about that, there’s stress about illness and potential loss,” Gee said. “I think those factors are going to be ongoing during this and probably afterward.
“Bottom line: It’s a new virus that none of us have ever been exposed to, and we really don’t know the eventual consequences until everything’s all said and done.”