'The stress was pretty crazy. It was a shared trauma': New leaders taking over COVID-19 Incident Command Team

Derek Wiley
Topeka Capital-Journal
Shawnee County Health Department director Teresa Fisher, left, and health officer Erin Locke will take over the reins of the Shawnee County  COVID-19 Incident Command Team.

After 19 months of leading Shawnee County's COVID-19 response, Dusty Nichols is finally going back to his day job.

"This has been a long, long time," Nichols said of stepping down as the incident commander of the county's COVID-19 Incident Command Team to return full-time as the director of the Emergency Management Department. "You get in a rhythm, but it’s exhausting. It got tiring.

"It’s weird to start letting that go. But it’s nice to start transitioning those duties."

The COVID-19 response team, which has been staffed by Shawnee County and City of Topeka employees, is shifting its operations to the Shawnee County Health Department. 

After 60 days of shadowing and mentoring, the move should be seamless.

"Hopefully, they (Shawnee County residents) won’t notice a change," said Nichols, who will officially step down as incident commander Oct. 28, handing the reins over to Shawnee County Health Department director Teresa Fisher and health officer Erin Locke. "If we do it correctly, there won’t be a gap in service. That’s really what our goal is."

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Transition won't mean end to COVID-19 focus

Dusty Nichols will go back to his full-time duties as director of Shawnee County Emergency Management at the end of October. He had been leading the COVID Command Team.

Most of the city and non-health department team members will transition off the team. 

"When the pandemic started, so much of everything else shut down, so everyone was able to focus on COVID," Locke said. "But over the next year and a half, we’ve basically been trying to do the pandemic and other jobs.

"Part of this is a reflection of how much the community has learned and how much the community has taken it on themselves to also respond to the pandemic. We’re just in a different place now."

However, the transition doesn't mean the county is finished fighting COVID-19.

This week's Shawnee County COVID-19 community indicator report had a substantial rating of 12. COVID-19 cases and the percentage of positive tests did decrease from the previous week's report. The number of cases dropped from 527 to 427, while the percentage of positive tests decreased from 7% to 6.1%.

The new leaders for Shawnee County's COVID Command Team, health department director Teresa Fisher, left, and health officer Erin Locke walk down the hallway at the health department headquarters Thursday.

"This change is not happening because we think the pandemic is over," Locke said. "It’s just a matter of what resources we use and when and where."

The move was originally scheduled for Aug. 1. However, the date was pushed back due to a surge in COVID-19 cases and the extension of the state-of-disaster emergency until Oct. 28.

"Unfortunately, we were right in keeping the team together for a little bit longer," Nichols said.

The city and non-health department team members will remain as primary points of contact should the team need to be resumed.

"If something were to spike up again that was out of the health department’s control, the people that are already trained would step back in," Nichols said. "They’ll be the first ones called back."

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Shawnee County health experts saw pandemic coming

The incident command team was formed in February 2020 as a way to get information about COVID-19 out into the community.

"We saw it coming," Nichols said. "We saw the trends so we put together a team similar to what we did during Ebola."

After starting as a public information officer, Nichols was named incident commander last April. One of his first tasks was installing a rumor control hotline, which received so many calls that he had to add a second line.

Early in the pandemic, Nichols and other members of the team would occasionally receive phone calls in the middle of the night or early morning from businesses that were open 24 hours and had questions about COVID-19 symptoms, masks or social distancing. 

"We did everything we possibly could all the time to meet customer service," Nichols said. "We just tried to be as available as much as possible because people were scared."

Dusty Nichols, incident commander of the Shawnee County COVID-19 Incident Command Team, talks with Topeka Mayor Michelle De La Isla last year.

The most common false rumors Nichols and the team had to address were martial law and "ill-advised" COVID-19 treatments.

"Someone took a picture of a train carrying military equipment," Nichols recalled. "Even though it was a standard shipment and it was taken out of context, people believed it (martial law) because there was a picture."

The command team had to prepare mentally for dark days, such as Shawnee County's first COVID-19 death, which came in mid-April 2020.

"We knew what was going to happen because we were seeing it happen across the word, so we prepared our team," Nichols said. "We had discussions — there was a real chance people we knew would die, a chance people on this team would die.

"Close friends and family did die. All of that stuff is hard to handle. We supported each other, checked on each other. The stress was pretty crazy. It was a shared trauma."

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Team laments that some politicized health crisis

Nichols said emergency management and health departments had long prepared for pandemics.

"I’ve been in this job for 30 years and those (pandemic responses) have been in the plans," Nichols said. "So we started using those plans and then they changed."

The changes came from the Kansas Legislature.

"We had three different pandemics, basically," Nichols said. "We had the pandemic itself, and then we had an information pandemic and then change. It was constantly changing. We went from a proactive team to a reactive team, unfortunately. 

"It just kept us on our toes. We tried to plan for them. But we couldn’t because we never knew what was going to happen. It took that entire team to really brainstorm a lot of creative ideas to try to get our jobs done."

The biggest change was House Bill 2016, which transferred the power to make COVID-19 related decisions from the county's health officer to the county commissioners.

"We were way ahead. We were probably weeks ahead on some things and they (the Legislature) took over," Nichols said. "All of the stuff that we’ve been training and exercising and planning and anticipating, all that stuff changed because it became political."

With all of the changes, it became even more important for the Shawnee County COVID team to stick together.

Promoting good health and mask wearing, the new leaders of the Shawnee County COVID Incident Command Team, Health Department Director Teresa Fisher, left, and Health Officer Erin Locke, right, hold up branded masks from the entrance of the health department headquarters.

"There was a lot of trust that was built," said Locke, who wasn't technically on the command team but did attend meetings as the county's health officer. "Outside of the team, things were changing, and it was very confusing.

"Inside the team, there was a lot of communication and trust and really trying to stay on the same page."

Throughout the pandemic, the team's purpose hasn't changed.

"The mission has always been the same, to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in Shawnee County," Nichols said.