Greenfield health director was key in countywide COVID-19 response – Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Bob Dohr

| Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Do you remember your day on March 12, 2020?

Darren Rausch remembers his clearly.

Many remember the following day, March 13, when schools closed and other dominos started to fall as the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in southeastern Wisconsin and around the U.S.

But on March 12, Rausch, the 44-year-old health officer/director for the city of Greenfield, was in preparation mode.

Rausch, Greenfield Mayor Michael Neitzke and other city leaders held in-person meetings to formulate contingency plans, Rausch said. They also met with school administrators and directors of nursing homes and senior living facilities to bring them up to speed on the pandemic’s growing threat and formulate a response. 

At that point, Rausch said they didn’t know exactly when plans would be implemented, but he said “basically, within 24 hours, all heck broke loose.”

Rausch ended up being — and still is — a key cog in Milwaukee County’s unified response to the pandemic. 

In the initial days of the pandemic, a countywide Unified Emergency Operations Center (UEOC) was activated. 

Rausch led efforts of the county’s 11 health departments to coordinate their response across sectors, including health care, emergency medical services, fire, police, municipal government and county assets, including human services, housing and more.

“This was the first true unified response in the history of Milwaukee County, which made it both challenging and rewarding to see come to fruition,” Rausch said.

That collaboration was key. In fact, Rausch agreed to be interviewed for this story on the condition that it be clear that teamwork and collaboration were essential elements of the county’s response. 

Rausch was considered a valuable team member 

But all successful teams are made up of valuable members, and those who work with Rausch recognize him as such. 

“He’s extremely bright, professional and pragmatic,” Neitzke said. “He has strong communication skills that he is able to tailor to his audience.”

Neitzke said Rausch wasn’t required to take a leadership role, but he did.

“A number of health officers kept their backs hunched and kept their heads down during the pandemic,” Neitzke said. “Darren stood up straighter. He didn’t have to.” 

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South Milwaukee Public Health Administrator Jackie Ove, who’s worked closely with Rausch on the UEOC, said Rausch has an epidemiological background, is certified in public health and has “strong qualities when it comes to looking at data.”

She said Rausch worked on the workgroups that developed the Milwaukee County COVID-19 dashboard and is a lead with the Medical College of Wisconsin group that works on weekly epidemiological reports for the county.

“He’s well-spoken, he’s been great with public information and being that face in the media, and making sure that we’re getting information out to the public through our Milwaukee media market,” Ove said.

She and Rausch have had experience working together on previous public health initiatives and preparedness, which Ove said has been a help. 

“Public health initiatives usually don’t just affect one community, they cross jurisdictional boundaries, so we’ve been able to collaborate well together,” Ove said. 

Emergency preparedness a key 

Rausch’s background and experience has prepared him well for his role. 

Rausch, who started his public health career in 2001 at Waukesha Public Health before moving to the Greenfield position 14-plus years ago, said he’s always known that emergency preparedness was a key aspect of public health. 

He said emergency preparedness staff training and resources provided a solid footing for response to many emergency situations before COVID-19: anthrax scares in fall 2001, smallpox vaccination efforts, the 2003 monkey pox outbreak, 2009-10 H1N1 influenza pandemic and multiple outbreaks of pertussis (whooping cough).

Rausch said one thing he’s always loved about public health is the variety. 

“I was trained in communicable disease control and epidemiology, so that is my bread and butter,” he said. “The Unified Emergency Operations Center and the countywide collaborative work, that’s where I stepped up and led the epidemiology intelligence team, trying to make sense of the data, trying to provide both a website dashboard for the data and also a static report that comes out weekly, so that we could really keep our population informed. 

“That’s actually been my passion through all of this.”

Nearly 40% of state’s health officers have left during pandemic 

Rausch’s efforts come as many of his statewide colleagues have left their public health jobs during the pandemic. 

Since March 2020, 39.5% of the health officer positions in Wisconsin are vacant or have been filled by new people, said Jamie Michael, director of the Wisconsin Association of Local Health Departments and Boards.

Rausch is one of the 20% of health officers in the state with 10 or more years of experience, she said. 

Rausch said he never considered quitting during the pandemic.

“While quitting was never really on my radar screen, surely there was frustration and exhaustion at the challenges faced and the long hours we worked in the beginning months,” he said.

He said March through May 2020 “was a blur.”

Rausch said the amount of time he’s spent in his current position has allowed him to build strong relationships with city leaders, common council members, board of health members and others.

“In crises, relationships are important, and it is very difficult to create relationships in the heat of the crisis,” Rausch said. “I never take this for granted and think about this often when I hear from colleagues in other communities across the region and the state who are newer to their roles and hadn’t had the time to make the connections; not surprisingly, they have had more difficulties.” 

Personally, Rausch said he was “hyperfocused” on ensuring that the Greenfield Health Department team had the resources needed to be successful and that the department was providing quality services to Greenfield residents. 

In addition, he said he had a leadership role to make sure the city was responding appropriately for its employees to keep them safe and protected. And early in the pandemic, he added countywide leadership roles to his plate, serving as lead of the epidemiology intelligence team and being a key public health spokesperson on regular media briefings.

Rausch said support he received from Greenfield leadership — within the city, Common Council and board of health — was key.

“Knowing that I had that support meant the world.” 

Different reasons for health officers leaving   

Why have so many health officers left their positions?

Neitzke said some likely were fantastic at traditional day-to-day health responsibilities, such as flu shots and restaurant safety, but were not prepared for the rigors of a societally contentious pandemic.

In other situations, Neitzke said some very competent health officers “were just skewered by their elected officials, often publicly. I’m guessing most folks wouldn’t want to work in those environments.”

Ove said the collective attitude of the public has played a large role.

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“It’s been very challenging to work with the public and the anger level and the politics that have taken over looking at science and what’s the best response during this pandemic,” Ove said. “This is unprecedented in our time, and so, as we look at the science, we try to make the best decisions that we can based on the science, and that’s not generally the popular opinion that’s out there, so that’s been very difficult.”

Rausch agreed. He said one of the things that surprised him early in the pandemic, with the mask debate, for example, was the “extent of the divisiveness and the vitriol and the passion” on both sides of the argument.

He said he doesn’t expect it to go away anytime soon. 

“That divisiveness that’s really pushed the envelope for some people to retire or get out of public health altogether is, I think, a challenging proposition in the moment of the pandemic, but also … on the other side of the pandemic, for continuing the good work in public health.”

Contact Bob Dohr at 262-361-9140 or Follow him on Twitter at @BobDohr1.

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