By Crystal Jones
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Shirley Payne, MPH’11, has balanced her role as an adjunct faculty member at IU Bloomington with a job transition at the Indiana Department of Health (IDOH). In July 2020, she graduated with her Ph.D. in Health Behavior, her fourth degree from Indiana University. In each of these roles, she has utilized her optimistic outlook and understanding of public health and human behavior to extend grace to individuals when needed and to make a difference.
Dr. Payne, whose MPH double major focused in Epidemiology and Behavioral Health Science, believes that her epidemiology training prepared her to have an informed look at the data and the disbursement of disease. The behavioral health training underscored the impact the pandemic had on everything. In November of 2020, this understanding, combined with her educational and career achievements, helped prepare her to become the Assistant Commissioner of the Public Health Protection Commission at the IDOH after nine years of serving in the Children’s Special Health Care Services Division, including seven as the Director.
In her new role, Dr. Payne oversees the Food Protection, Environmental Public Health, Immunization, Lead and Healthy Homes, Emergency Preparedness, and Vital Records Divisions. She is excited about this role, as it allows her to use her skills and expertise in new ways.
Her ability to adapt and manage multiple priorities has helped her adjust and transition to the roles requested by the IDOH during the COVID-19 response. She has served by assisting with drive-through testing and as the vaccine project manager.
“I hope people learn how important public health is because of the pandemic. Even in typical times, it impacts everything,” she said. “The pandemic also shined a light on the social determinants of health and health equity by showing the difference in populations, the spread of disease, and access to health care all over the country.”
Dr. Payne applauds all public health professionals who have had to adapt and adjust continually throughout the pandemic. “In collaboration with my colleagues, I was able to use the public health data and education received by Fairbanks (then the Department of Public Health) to help make informed decisions. This included utilizing the data to help target the best areas to implement testing and vaccination clinics and to understand the demographics in each area to help with targeted outreach and planning. The knowledge gained from my MPH along with my experience at IDOH allowed me to understand the different roles that academia, public service, and practical experiences play in serving the public.”
Dr. Payne also recognizes the long hours, hard work, and the impact of long-term stress that individuals have experienced from the pandemic.
“When I look at the work that our team did here to ensure that individuals had PPE gear or that public health professionals had the pertinent information ready and available to share with the public, I couldn’t be more proud of our team. Not only because of their work during the pandemic, but because of the passion and belief they have in good health for all.”
Dr. Payne describes the past year as truly two years or more worth of work for many individuals who sacrificed by working double or triple the hours required to respond – missing important appointments or events and choosing to care for others and Indiana more than themselves.
It is because of this that when the nation crossed the threshold of 500,000 deaths from COVID-19, Dr. Payne declared that week a self-care week for her IU students. She encouraged them to find time to reflect and process the impact the pandemic has had on them and the world. It’s been a hard year and so many individuals lost their lives, jobs, and more.
Dr. Payne believes individuals must give themselves permission and space to mentally process the stress and even trauma, and find ways that will continuously fill them up to keep moving forward.
“I know that we may be tired, and we may be exhausted, but we all feel truly blessed to have a job that makes a difference. There are so many individuals who lost a lot during this pandemic, and every second of work my colleagues did was to prevent as many losses as possible. I’m beyond thankful to work with this team and all public health professionals in the past year.”