Dr Karin English on how pandemic planning paid off in the national capital

Scrabble letters spell out "planning."

Jeremy Lasek – PHAA

We continue our series featuring the incredible diversity of work within Australia’s public health workforce. Today, let’s meet Dr Karin English, who works with ACT Health as a trainee public health physician.

Currently Karin is on maternity leave, and also hard at work studying for her Fellowship Exams.

Her career path to date encapsulates the journey so many public health officials take. And like so many, her life took a significant turn when COVID-19 reached Australia early last year.

Karin graduated from Duke University (North Carolina, USA) in 2010 with a Bachelor of Science. Her academic focus was Biology and Environmental Sciences. She conducted her final year research in toxicology in the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke, and focused on mountain top removal mining.

After returning to Australia, Karin started medical school at the University of Queensland and enrolled in the intercalated MBBS-PhD program to continue research.

Karin said as she has always had an interest in environmental health, her doctorate concentrated on the exposure of infants to toxins in the home, particularly insecticides and flame retardants. She created an online exposure assessment tool.

Another element of her PhD involved studying calls to a poisons information centre in Australia. She learned that a disproportionate number of young children were referred to hospital following suspected exposure to the unsafe packaging of a household bug spray that contained organophosphate.

“This highlighted the need for more comprehensive regulation and monitoring of insecticides in Australia, and for improvements in child-proof packaging of pest control products,” Karin explained.

Karin relocated to Canberra from Queensland in early 2020 and started with ACT Health shortly after the pandemic began. At that time, the ACT had a hundred or so cases. After restrictions eased in July, the ACT’s 400,000 residents lived relatively free of the virus.

“We then spent a year planning and wondering when the next COVID-19 outbreak would happen,” Karin recalled.

“As a community we lived somewhat in denial that it would come here – and of course eventually it did.

“Although it has been hard, it’s been really rewarding putting all those plans into place and knowing that the hard work has paid off.”

The relatively recent arrival of COVID-19 into the Canberra community has resulted in a major upheaval of life with workplaces, schools, businesses and sport all effectively closed since 12 August.

Due to nation-leading vaccination rates in the national capital, the ACT’s lockdown is due to end on Friday, 22 October.

For Karin and her colleagues at ACT Health, the past 60 days has been a major learning experience.

“We learnt a lot from other jurisdictions, and places like Melbourne, for example with their outbreaks in public housing,” Karin says.

“This enabled us to respond quickly and collaboratively with other agencies when we experienced similar outbreaks in the ACT.”

Karin’s job has been hands-on. There is no working from home, and time off is precious when you’re dealing with a once in a lifetime pandemic. The team run split shifts, trying to identify COVID sources, tracking down contacts, and managing outbreaks as quickly as possible.

She’s extremely proud of the workforce’s response.

“Everyone I work with is similar to me; they’re big problem thinkers, empathetic, driven, and they’re passionate about their work. It’s so rewarding working with such a dynamic group of people.”

Karin’s advice to someone starting out in public health?

“Explore as many opportunities as you can.”

If she was the Minister for Health for a day?

“I’d put more investment in evidence-based preventive health.”

With an eye to the future, Karin is looking forward to a life of COVID-19 “normal”.

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