Pierce County and COVID: An Interview with Nigel Turner

It has been over a year since schools, businesses, and sports were shut down due to the COVID-19 Virus, and things haven’t gone particularly well here in Pierce County. I had the opportunity to speak with Nigel Turner, the division director of communicable disease control at the Tacoma Pierce County Health Department, who shared some valuable insights on why the pandemic has played out the way it has.

I asked Nigel—who has been division director for twenty-four years— how he thinks the health department has fared in preparing for, warning about and containing the virus, to which he said, “I think the HD has done well in preparing, we used planning and incident command structure as the basis for our response. We have built strong relationships with county and state agencies to share resources and information.”

Interestingly, Nigel told me that, “we have been preparing for and warning about pandemics for over ten years, and developed extensive experience in outbreak investigation and mass vaccination that have been invaluable during the pandemic.”

I then asked Nigel if he thinks the HD could’ve done anything better to prepare for or stop the spread of COVID, and he said that public health has been underfunded for decades, the subsequent limiting of staff in certain areas has depleted resources in key sectors such as epidemiology and vaccine management. Federal funding has helped close the gap between supply and demand during the pandemic. 

A highly anticipated question that was requested by Leo Bessler, another member of the journalism staff, was: “Do you think we’ve gone too far in trying to prevent the spread?”

This was a difficult question for Nigel, who responded, “The measures that have been taken have a negative impact on businesses and the community. However, it is clear that the impact on lives, the health of the community, and broader social impact could’ve been even greater if the measures weren’t taken. When people’s lives are at stake, we have a moral duty to act. We may never know if we got this balance right, but we should continue to ask the question.” 

Something that every American surely wants to know is what the future looks like. Will we ever return to “normal?”

Nigel told me, “There is light at the end of the tunnel that is the pandemic. Restrictions will be lifted as disease rates fall. We will return to a new normal, however it may never be quite the same. For example, we may be cautioned to wear masks during future flu seasons, and whenever we are sick.” This closure gave me hope for the future, although this answer is sort of intuitive.

As Pierce County moves back into Phase 2, the future may not look bright, but it’s important to remember that there is a light at the end of this tunnel.