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Environmental public health alumni respond to COVID-19

| Diane Walkoff

Over the past month, numerous UW-Eau Claire alumni have shared stories of how they have helped support efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19.

Dr. Crispin Pierce, professor of environmental public health, is pleased to report on the work of two recent environmental public health graduates who are making crucial contributions to public health efforts.

"I am proud of all UW-Eau Claire graduates, and especially so of ENPH alumni who are now working to contain the spread of COVID-19," Pierce says. “I wanted to share two stories of recent graduates of our program who are also making a difference."

Breanna Rheinschmidt

Breanna Rheinschmidt

Breanna Rheinschmidt, a 2017 environmental public health graduate, works as an occupational safety inspector with the Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Services, Department of Safety. Her work involves providing safety regulations, equivalent to Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations, to all public sector employers.

"In regard to COVID-19, our biggest concern is with N95 respirators," Rheinschmidt says. "OSHA requires a written respiratory program, medical evaluation, training, fit testing and proper seal checking. I am providing guidelines to the most highly impacted groups of people in our public sector, including wastewater treatment facility workers and police officers."

In addition to her responsibilities in enforcing OSHA regulations, Rheinschmidt also conducts research relating to ozone generators.

"Another issue we are discovering is that many places are trying to use ozone generators to help purify the air of their places of employment," Rheinschmidt says. "Ozone exposure can decrease lung function, cause throat irritation and increase susceptibility to other respiratory illnesses. I am currently doing research on ozone generators and what safety precautions are out there for our customers to follow."

Zach Zirnhelt

Zach Zirnhelt

Zach Zirnhelt, a 2019 environmental public health graduate, is a senior paraprofessional in the Infectious Disease Epidemiology, Prevention and Control Division of the Minnesota Department of Health. While his position generally involves foodborne illness surveillance and outbreak investigations in Minnesota, his responsibilities have changed in recent weeks.

"I am now committing most of my time to COVID-19 response," Zirnhelt says. "When the first Minnesota resident tested positive for the virus, I was answering questions from the public on the MDH public hotline. Most recently I have been working on case investigations and contact tracing. My public health education has most notably allowed me to practice effective communication skills and build an understanding of disease-specific transmission parameters."

The public continues to benefit from the vital work of public health professionals like Breanna and Zach, who are adapting to changing needs and applying their education and experience to society's most pressing public health issues.