When the COVID-19 pandemic struck Greene County almost two years ago, Katie Towns was no stranger to navigating public health crises. She played an integral role in distributing Influenza A vaccines during the 2009 H1N1 virus outbreak, and she was an important stakeholder in the success of the Springfield Smokefree Air Act of 2011.
Being a steward of public health in 2022 often entails battling the unknown, and sometimes it means being the bearer of bad news. Towns is learning to let go––and to trust her abilities.
“Over the past couple of years that has been one of those resounding [lessons] for me, because we’ve just had so many situations thrust upon us that we could not control,” she says. “We had to really focus on what we could do—how we could control disease, how we could keep people healthy, how we could keep people from perishing. We did those things as best we could, and we had to let go of a lot of things along the way.” Towns was sworn in as permanent director of the Springfield-Greene County Health Department in late July, after spending five months as the interim director. Since she was selected for the position, she has been the face of municipal support for vaccination against COVID-19—and a target of criticism for the health department’s messaging. Towns does not waver; she’s confident in her team’s work. “Even prior to the pandemic, we as a department have been pushing the envelope in public health, and we have done things that no other health departments have done,” Towns says.
On many occasions, Towns has had to overcome the feeling that all the odds were stacked against her and her team. The gravitational pull of life’s hurdles can be really distracting against what one knows to be true, she says.
“I’m not going to lie—there have been some moments of complete despair,” Towns says, citing periods like late 2020. “It was right before we had started being able to have people vaccinated, and we had a tremendous amount of disease circulating in our community,” she says. “Our folks were tired. We were heading into winter, and we all knew we weren’t going to be able to celebrate with our families, and it was dark.” When one person would have a low day, somebody else who was having a better one would do their best to uplift them, Towns recalls. “We just traded that hope, and I think it was what got us through.”
In the years preceding her work at the health department, Towns overcame significant obstacles in her own life. Twice, she was diagnosed with breast cancer—first at age 18, and again at 29, when she underwent a complete mastectomy. It’s part of the reason she finds passion and peace in keeping people healthy.