Riley County and city of Manhattan employees have risen to face many challenges since March. Many people who work behind the scenes have moved to the spotlight to help communicate with the public about COVID-19 and how to stay healthy as the crisis continues.
Andrew Adams, emergency preparedness coordinator, said his job is often behind the scenes, but now he has more of a public presence. There are very few opportunities for him to detach from work.
“I try to get everybody on the same page and growing together, essentially, and with that open communication,” Adams said. “There are always difficult elements of it. I think it’s just compounded a bit by the you know the 24-hour data … that we’re getting information all the time. Things change very quickly. … I don’t think it’s anything new, just a much larger scale.”
Adams said he works around 60 to 70 hours a week. Vivienne Uccello, city of Manhattan public information officer, and Julie Gibbs, local health officer, say they work roughly the same amount.
“My record was 105, and that was that was early in the response,” Uccello said. “This is the hardest I’ve ever worked. In 2019, during the Tuttle Creek flood, I worked quite a lot of hours then as well, but it still doesn’t compare to this.”
Uccello’s main job is communicating decisions made by the city with the public. However, since March, she said she is essentially “on loan” to the Riley County Health Department as the lead public information officer for the Riley County COVID-19 response.
“My job has changed pretty dramatically,” Uccello said. “Most of my duties at the city are being covered by other staff as possible. I am spending most of my time working on COVID-19 communications.”
Gibbs said her job duties have changed as well. Normally, she manages the health department and focuses on writing grants and reporting information to the board of the department.
“My health director role took a back seat to my health officer role,” Gibbs said. “Many supervisors have had to step up to help assume some of my regular responsibilities.”
For Adams, his job remains the same, but he said it has been more public and requires more work.
“Right now, public health is on everybody’s mind,” Adams said. “It’s in the forefront of everybody’s thoughts and we’re all over Facebook and the City Commission and all these things and, you know, we’re always here. So just because we’re in the news now doesn’t mean we go away when we get to the point where we’re in a little bit of a better situation with COVID.”
As people have returned to work after stay-at-home orders have been relaxed, so have the people informing the public. However, Uccello still works from home, which she said she enjoys.
“I have my whole setup like my multiple monitors and all the stuff that I need,” Uccello said. “I can roll out of bed and get to work. I can work late but then still take a break and go watch a little TV if I need to unplug and then get back to it. So it’s been it’s been nicer for me. I think I prefer working at home.”
On the other hand, Adams still goes into his office. He arrives around 7:30 a.m. and won’t go home until 7 p.m. He can’t work from home because his office has all the IT infrastructure and an open line of communication to coworkers that are imperative for his job.
The nature of their work has drawbacks. Many have difficulty maintaining their family relationships even while living in the same house.
“[There’s] not a lot of time with my son, who I miss,” Gibbs said via email. “We are in the same house, we just don’t see each other a lot.”
Both Uccello and Adams aren’t originally from Manhattan and it has been a long time since they visited family. Uccello’s family lives in southern California and she doesn’t get to visit much anyway. Adams is from Alton, Illinois, which he says is an easy drive, but he hasn’t been home since Christmas.
“I think from driveway to driveway, it’s about six turns for those 400 miles, so it’s pretty easy to get to,” Adams said.
All three agree that the work is difficult and requires long hours, but it’s rewarding.
“Just because it’s been difficult doesn’t mean it’s not rewarding,” Adams said. “I think every day there are small wins I think … even if it doesn’t seem like it.”
Gibbs said there is a lot of pressure to get the correct information to the community and make the right decisions, but at the end of the day, it’s rewarding knowing the community comes together to keep everyone safe.
I know there may seem like there’s a lot of tension — especially on social media — but everyone has the same end goal,” Gibbs said.
Uccello wants to help as many people as she can, but acknowledges her job is difficult. If she doesn’t give the right information, people’s health may be at stake.
“I want to make sure folks have access to the most up-to-date information and make sure it’s accurate because they need to take action based on kind of the reports that I’m sending out,” Uccello said. “I don’t want to fail them.”
After three steady months of working 60 hours or more, they are ready for a vacation, but it’s unclear when that might be able to happen.
“While I enjoy traveling, it would be nice just to spend time with family out in western Kansas. My hometown is pretty low-key and that’s what I need,” Gibbs said.
Uccello would like to go somewhere to “be a tourist,” preferably by the ocean.
Adams wants to go golfing and “not answer emails the entire time.”