UC Davis Professor Emeritus Stephen McCurdy has been working from his home in San Rafael as a deputy health officer for Marin County since the early days of the pandemic. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)

Pandemic Problem Solver

by | May 3, 2021 | Discoveries, Health

When Professor Emeritus Stephen McCurdy retired from UC Davis in 2017, he planned to keep up with various academic activities — finish research projects, advise a graduate student and teach. When the pandemic hit, everything changed and his schedule got a lot busier.

In early 2020, McCurdy, a physician and founding director of the UC Davis Masters in Public Health program, contacted the Marin County health department and volunteered to help.

“I just realized — how could it be that I would not contribute?” said McCurdy, who lives in San Rafael. “Within 48 hours I had a more than full-time position as deputy health officer.”

His background in organizing educational materials and public health research teams helped him quickly snap into action, heading up the county’s case investigation and contact tracing program. His team often is the first point of contact for someone who has tested positive for COVID-19. They need to determine how the person was exposed, but they also offer information on how to protect themselves, family, and the community through isolation and quarantine and, when needed, how to access free resources such as hotel rooms for quarantine or grocery delivery.

At the pandemic’s height, McCurdy’s case investigation and contact tracing team expanded from about 12 people to 120.

“Staffing was quite a challenge, because it takes many weeks, and a lot of virtual hand holding, for people to become competent at case investigation and contact tracing,” McCurdy said. “In a brief time, you have to establish trust and get the information that we need to do our public health job, but also direct them to resources they need. We are trying to do all that against a rapidly changing influx of cases. It varies markedly from one day to the next. It’s really been a wild ride.

“I’ve tried to inculcate in my team this sense of specialness in what they are doing. They should be proud of what we have done.”

Though Marin County has experienced surges in COVID-19 cases over the past year, the region now has one of the highest vaccination rates in the state. According to McCurdy, 95 percent of people over 65 have been vaccinated. And about 82 percent of all eligible residents have had at least one dose.

“We anticipate having everybody who wants a shot to get it by early June, and it may even happen before that,” he said.

As a contingent hire, McCurdy is working temporarily for Marin County. As conditions continue to improve, counties everywhere will be able to demobilize. McCurdy predicted this could happen by fall.

When the pandemic finally subsides, he said he’s looking forward to a little more downtime — more hiking trips and visits with family. But he’s in it for however long he’s needed, he emphasized.

“I do want to play in every inning, but I’m also looking forward to the end of the ballgame,” he said, “and a win for our side.”