By Lance Chilton
UNM master’s in public health 2005 graduate Peter Hicks, who has worked for the US Centers for Disease Control for many years, was quoted recently in the UNM alumni magazine, Mirage, as saying, “Listen to the scientists, listen to your public health leaders. COVID-19 is apolitical. This is not the flu. This is completely different than the flu. I’m a big proponent of masks and social distancing. Collectively, we will get through this.”
Hicks is a medical informaticist, who looks at data from around the country to determine how it can help protect the public’s health. During the COVID pandemic, he has been detailed to seven different locations to assist with the response to the crisis. The assignments have varied from Pennsylvania to San Francisco to Window Rock, where he has reported to work in full personal protective equipment and has stayed well while observing the various ways in which the infection spreads and the disease is detected and treated.
COVID has been especially virulent on the Navajo Reservation, resulting in a case attack rate 2.5 times the national rate and a death rate more than 4 times that in the US, by my calculations. A team at the Navajo Department of Health has made substantial inroads into the rate of new infections and death, however; as case counts swirl ever higher around the country, including in New Mexico as of the end of October, the rate on the Rez has been falling. Mr. Hicks was a member of that team, along with several other UNM graduates and others. He testified to the dedication and hard work of his colleagues there, in the other locations to which he was detailed, and in CDC headquarters in Atlanta. But he also noted the exhaustion, stress and sadness that his teammates faced.
Mr. Hicks finds it “really interesting to work to address complex public health problems… and to help people who are disproportionately at risk for adverse health outcomes,” including minority groups and the poor. He has done so for many years and many deployments, using an informatics technique called “syndromic surveillance” to look at data patterns to define the epidemiology of and to diagnose and treat problems as diverse as falls among the elderly and among bicyclists, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, oral health problems, and opiate abuse.
I will repeat his words: “Listen to the scientists… COVID is apolitical… collectively, we will get through this.” With people like Peter Hicks leading the way, we will emerge at the other end.