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Millcreek Journal

Dr. Angela Dunn still serves the public, just not so publically

Aug 10, 2023 01:57PM ● By Ella Joy Olse

Her job is still to protect the public, but her role these days is a little more Clark Kent than Superman, and that’s just how she likes it.

She’s Dr. Angela Dunn, former Utah State Epidemiologist, and the face many still associate with the Covid-19 pandemic. 

“Even now when I meet new people they’ll say something like, ‘I feel like I should get your autograph,’ and that’s always a little unsettling to me,” Dunn says, indicating that public servants don’t serve for celebrity status, either positive or negative. “Heck, I dyed my hair blonde so I wouldn’t be as recognizable, but the hair thing is too much work, so I’m going back to brunette.”

Still, she feels a little bad about being associated with a public health crisis, with the years that were quite possibly some of the hardest ever encountered by our country, our state and the community-at-large. 

The role of State Epidemiologist is, by nature, an outwardly focused one. Dunn’s duty was to share directly with the public emerging and science-based suggestions for containing any public health crisis. She just happened to get a global pandemic. She, and other health officials countrywide, worked against a political movement that belittled scientific expertise. This drew controversy from local detractors who circulated her address on social media and gathered in front of her home to protest. 

“It was scary and wrong that someone would feel comfortable sharing my personal information,” Dunn told the Salt Lake Tribune in late 2020. “That people would think it is OK to harass civil servants.”

About that time she realized the controversy had diminished her ability to be perceived as a neutral figure, so in 2021 when the county’s executive health director, Gary Edwards, announced his retirement, and Dunn had the opportunity to move into a less visible role, she took off the cape, so to speak.

Still a superhero

She’s now two years into her position as the Executive and Medical Director of the Salt Lake County Health Department, one of the largest local health departments in the nation, serving nearly 1.3 million residents. This new role is significantly different in that she is more behind- the-scenes, ensuring that the “best 500 public health practitioners,” those involved on the frontlines, have the resources to protect and improve the well-being of all county residents. She problem-solves in a team environment, doing big picture planning for the future of public health.

Services provided under the umbrella of the County Health Department are vast and seemingly jack-of-all-trades, ranging from expected things like screenings and immunizations, to more obscure services like: noise pollution, noxious weed control, tobacco prevention, bee inspection and water quality. 

Or according to the department website, “Every day we immunize children, inspect restaurants, keep tobacco out of the hands of minors, encourage physical activity, teach proper nutrition, protect our water and air, and provide culturally appropriate services to a multitude of disparate populations.” 

Dunn believes that, “these different divisions fit well together because, when combined, they touch the health, lives and livelihoods of every single person.” 

Casting a community-focused web 

Dunn’s first year in her new role was focused on adjusting to the aftermath of the pandemic, on helping staff to process the complex emotions after the adrenaline rush and heartbreak. 

She now hopes to apply the lessons learned from those tumultuous years. She is working toward a change in perspective. Rather than applying top-down health objectives to all communities, health workers are now being strategically placed to reflect the unique communities they serve. They will be in a position to communicate with local trusted leaders, with the intent of proceeding from people toward policy (rather than the other way around). The goal is to ask about specific community-focused priorities and needs, then address those needs, then focus on health literacy so the information and services provided will be easily understood and used.

The hope is to build back trust lost during the pandemic, to be engaged with communities over the long term, to be in a positon to let people know why and how recommendations come about and may change, and to innovate and move faster when confronted with another health crisis. 

Hero’s journey 

Dunn was born in Texas. Her father was in the oil business and his job moved the family from state to state, so by the time she was 7, Dunn had lived in nine different houses. She learned to adapt to change, a trait she still uses in her profession.

Dunn received her medical degree from the University of Miami, Miller School of Medicine, and completed her residency training in general preventive medicine and public health at the University of California San Diego. She also holds a Master of Public Health from San Diego State University and a B.A. in international relations from Brown University.

After her education she served as an epidemic intelligence service officer for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where she responded to the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone. In 2014, she accepted an epidemiologist assignment with the Utah Department of Health and she became the state epidemiologist just four years later. 

Along with her executive director position at the county, she’s currently the president of the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists, or CSTE, which held their annual conference in SLC in June.

Unmasking the superhero

Dunn’s perfect day would start with an unhurried, unstructured morning of breakfast, reading and cuddling with her sons, ages 11 and 6. She loves trail running, so she might get a little exercise someplace like City Creek, on a trial with a bit of elevation and a perfect combination of shade, sun and views. She loves that she can access mountain trails from her back door, something she realizes is not found in many cities.

If she had a bit of extra free time during the day, she might listen to an audio book to allow for multitasking. Her favorites are not medical thrillers (because she sometimes feels like she’s lived it) but spy or crime novels. Or she wouldn’t mind watching a show. Dunn’s Covid-19 binge series was “Homeland,” which she enjoyed because the main character’s job woes felt even more daunting than her own. 

For dinner she’d go to HSL, where she loves the food and the décor. She’d choose one of the groovy high-backed booths for an easy, private conversation with friends and/or family. 

These days Dunn no longer wears a mask at the farmer’s market, on a plane, or while attending the theater. She’s a hugger and is happy to get back to that norm. What she loves is that at this stage we have a better understanding of Covid-19 and tools to fight it. Individuals, knowing their prior conditions, risk factors and vaccination status, can take the proper precautions. We can mask or unmask, and she says, “Isn’t it refreshing that masks can now occupy a more politically neutral space?” λ