Celebrating women: Pandemic heroes push forward

Jerrie Whiteley
Herald Democrat
On March 17, 2020, Grayson County Health Department Director Amanda Ortez stands with County Health Authority Dr. Jerry Bennett in the east courtroom of the Grayson County courthouse as commissioners discussed the county's response to COVID-19 virus worries.

As the pandemic stretches past the one-year mark, two local female leaders continue to help Grayson County deal with arguably one of the biggest challenges it has ever faced in the form of the ongoing trials related to the coronavirus.

Grayson County's Office of Emergency Management Director Sarah Somers and Health Department Director Amanda Ortez are both home grown leaders who have been with the county for more than a decade.

Grayson County Emergency Management Director Sarah Somers

Somers was hired as the county's EOM director in 2008 after spending several years working at Texoma Council of Governments. She spent most of her growing up years as a Denison Yellow Jacket, and then, she attended the University of Texas at Austin and the University of London External Programme through the London School of Economics. 

Grayson County Health Department Director Amanda Ortez

Ortez attended Sherman schools, and then Grayson College and Southeastern Oklahoma University for her bachelor's degree. She earned her master's degree from Texas Women's University. She was hired as the HD director in 2014, though she had been with the HD since 2005 working her way up from a trainee health inspector to county's public health emergency manager and the public information officer the department before being appointed its leader.

Over the years in their respective positions, the pair have led the county through emergencies that have included wild fires, floods and tornados along with potentially lethal mosquito infestations, algae blooms and H1N1 to name just a few.

But none of those ordeals were as long lasting and all encompassing for the county as a whole as their attention to and actions regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. While elected county leaders set the policies for the county's reaction, it was largely up to Ortez and Somers' groups to implement those policies on the ground and work with the area residents to ensure public safety and health was maintained.

For Somers, a former paralegal, the last year has meant helping each city and town within the county track the needs and expenditures in response the pandemic as well as helping leaders across the region deal with the avalanche of regulations regarding help from the state and federal government. 

Grayson County Office of Emergency Management Director Sarah Somers talks to commissioners in February of 2020 before pandemic protocols were instated.

And Ortez's job was no small feat either.

For her, the last 12 months has meant refocusing her staff of sanitarians, immunization specialists, women's health specialists, and others on tasks like testing for the virus, immunizing people and public health education on a threat that has been ever evolving.

While 2020-2021 have been unusual years for sure, Ortez said there is always some sort of public health matter on the HD's radar. 

This year has allowed the team "to join together, all in an effort to help the individuals within our community. We've had to change our focus and learn how to reach out to other agencies and collaborate with them to overcome barriers. It's one thing to practice and say you are going to react in a specific way, if and when a public health emergency happens, bit its another to actually implement it all," she said in an email.

Somers team is the community as a whole: all county officials and departments, local governments, non-profits, schools, civic and faith based organizations, every agency involved in public safety, the National Weather Service, volunteers, hospitals, all health care providers, local industry, the media, your neighbor, your great aunt’s nursing home, your mother’s home health provider, hospice organizations.

"There isn’t a department head at Grayson County I don’t lean on," she said in an email. "Working with, and to serve, all of those folks is a challenge and an honor. We solve problems, together."

Grayson County Courthouse

Though this has not been the first emergency, this pandemic year has been unique in some ways and but very much like all of the other years. 

"I tell young people interested in emergency management as a career that it is a position leading and managing different special projects, with impacts to life and property, one after another on very short notice, with limited funds and about which you may have limited knowledge," she said. "You have to have the attitude and drive to be a lifelong learner. You may have to research and learn about things you never imagined. I’ve learned interesting things over the years: all about the operations of private water systems and how they are regulated; the obstacles to gathering up shuttle debris spread across a large area of Texas; a cobble stone ice event and how long that ice actually takes to melt in rural, shaded areas and what that means to ambulance services; how few pieces of our critical infrastructure is actually supported by generators during a power failure; what support services the State can provide after a ransomware event; how much the continuity of government depends on information technology systems; the problems law enforcement can have using communications devices in a large school building; how much personal protective equipment and what kind all of the entities in Grayson County use; the complicated data management system behind the Texas Department of Health Services; how to set up and run a vaccine administration scheduling system for a health department; how to set up and best use various warning systems; working remotely. The list is never ending."

When each woman takes off her superhero cap at the end of the day, they wrap up in hobbies. They are both big readers when they aren't working to keep Grayson County safe and healthy. 

Somers likes everything except science fiction, and while picking a top three was tough, she was able to do it.

"The Bible. Charlotte’s Web as a child – learning that books and stories could have a rhythm and cadence as soothing as poetry," she said in an email. "To Kill a Mockingbird. Atlas Shrugged as a young adult. The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. The sculpture of Rodin. The paintings of Monet – I have horrible vision and the stories of his beautiful work in spite of his failing vision resonates with me. Listening to books through Audible has made it possible for me to continue “reading” – when I drive, when I do household chores, in spite of the long work hours this year. I am very grateful for it."

Understandably, Ortez said hasn't had a lot of time to read recently. 

" . . . the last book I read was 90 minutes in Heaven, by Don Piper. As for the books, movies, or other pieces of art that have influenced me over my lifetime, that’s a hard one.  I do remember reading the "Hot Zone", by Richard Preston, when I was younger and finding it all very interesting.  I would have never thought that it would have a role in my life, especially as the first public health concern the team had to address when I became the Grayson County Health Department Director."

So when she is not dealing with day-to-day public health concerns, Ortez is caring for her two children and spending time with family.

And to get a way from it all even for just a moment, Somers, a mother of two and grandmother of three, has "...tried to listen to one of the hundreds of conference calls while working outside in my yard. Listened to books on Audible. Tried to pretend FaceTime and Zoom and visits at a distance were family time. Shared and laughed at memes that were too on point. Prayed. Breathed. Focused on my gratitude for all the people making a difference in our community and beyond. Probably the same things everyone else in our world has done."

But, the job is not done. Even as the world and nation seem to have turned corners in the pandemic, there is still work to be done and the county has many people behind the scenes making sure that happens.

The Grayson County Health Department reported an additional COVID-19 related death in the county on Tuesday

The work continues

The vaccines are on their way and county employees, as well as many private practitioners are working overtime to get it to local people. But that is not all that is needed. People need to continue to social distance and wear masks when in large groups of people until enough people are immunized to make a difference so that they and their staffs can focus on on the next emergency no matter how big or small it might be.