PITTSBURG, Kan. — Samantha Garrett grew up in Crawford County, attending Southeast High School and Pittsburg State, where she graduated in December of 2018 before taking a job as marketing manager for Jock’s Nitch Sporting Goods.
In the past couple of months, though, Garrett has taken on a set of responsibilities that are new not only to her, but also to her new employer — which is technically every citizen in the county. Since mid-August, Garrett has been Crawford County’s public information officer — a position that did not exist before she took the job, and which was created primarily in response to the COVID-19 pandemic as county officials saw a need to improve communication with the public.
“I actually wasn’t looking for a new job, it’s just something I kind of came across and then when I read the description, I was kind of like ‘Oh OK, this is like a perfect fit,’” Garrett says.
The average work day for Garrett now starts with checking the latest COVID-19 isolation and quarantine numbers so she can update the county website and its social media accounts. She also prepares press releases, flyers, and downloadable materials for businesses, and attends a lot of meetings, including those of the county commission twice a week and the Crawford County Recovery Task Force.
“My office is in Girard, but I do go to the health department,” she says. “Just because of everything going on I assume I’m going to be going there like every day for whoever knows how long.”
Garrett's job isn’t the only new position the county government has created since the start of the pandemic. Earlier this year the Crawford County public health officer was also the director of the county health department. That single position has since essentially been turned into three different jobs, with a public health officer and deputy public health officer working for the county in addition to a separate health department director. The county has also hired several nurse epidemiologists, or epi-nurses, who handle the day-to-day management of COVID-19 isolation and quarantine orders. But even with the added staff, there is still plenty of work to go around.
“They’re constantly on the move,” Garrett says. “They’re calling the isolation and quarantine victims daily and checking in on them, going through all of the cases and everything like that. There’s never down time. It’s always go, go, go. And I think that’s another thing that people aren’t really realizing is the efforts that they are putting into it.”
Garrett can understand, though, how people who aren’t deeply involved may sometimes not recognize the amount of work that local government and public health officials are putting into mitigating the spread of COVID-19. Before she started working for the county, she was in that group herself.
“I guess I didn’t really think it was as serious as what it actually is,” she says.
More than half a year after Kansas launched its first lockdown in response to the virus, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who hasn’t heard the familiar refrain of remembering to wash your hands, use hand sanitizer, wear a facemask, and social distance yourself from others by at least six feet. But many people may still not appreciate how much work is going into fighting the pandemic behind the scenes.
“There’s so much that they don’t know about, like the calling every day,” Garrett says. “When you have hundreds of people in quarantine it’s like you’ve got to call each person every single day, you know it’s not an easy thing, and especially if you have people not wanting to comply to the rules.”
Eventually, beyond public health, the county government plans to have Garrett take on additional responsibilities handling public relations for its other departments, and she has already done some work on preparations for the November election.
“But that’s really the only other thing I’ve had time for,” she says.
In her interview for the public information officer position, Garrett says she was asked by County Commissioner Jeremy Johnson how she would feel about being the face of Crawford County.
“I told him it was actually pretty exciting,” she says.
Garrett earned her degree from Pittsburg State University in communication with an emphasis in advertising and a minor in marketing. Asked what her dream job would be, she says it would be “kind of what I'm doing,” adding that “it’s something that I could see myself doing literally forever.”
For Garrett, Crawford County is home, and she has no plans of leaving. Two months into her job as the public face of the county, she can’t foresee any reason she’d want to leave it any more than anyone can foresee the end of the unprecedented public health crisis that prompted the county to hire her.
“It definitely isn’t boring,” she says. “It’s eventful, it seems like there’s something new every day, but I really enjoy it.”