Rausch ’99 was ready to respond to COVID-19

Darren Rausch ’99 has been preparing for an outbreak like COVID-19 since he first began his career in public health 19 years ago. 

The Health Officer and Director of the Greenfield Health Department in Greenfield, Wisconsin, has spent years planning for emergencies, including outbreaks such as smallpox, anthrax, and influenza pandemics.

“Our collective work to plan, prepare, and respond to these emergencies has been tested over the years with smaller-scale regional outbreaks, H1N1 influenza, and more,” he says. “COVID-19 has tested these plans even further, and there are aspects of disease investigation and contact tracing that have been enhanced significantly from our original plans.”

When his county implemented a Unified Emergency Operations Center in response to the pandemic, he was ready to step in to lead a successful response plan for keeping the community safe. 

“It is often stated that public health operates behind-the-scenes until something goes wrong,” Rausch said. “Certainly, public health has never been more visible.”

Darren Rausch '99
Darren Rausch ’99

This is part of a series of stories on Cornellians responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Greenfield Health Department, in Milwaukee County, serves 37,000 suburban residents. The services offered to the community are varied, but include clinical services related to vaccinations, blood pressure clinics, and conducting disease investigations for all reportable communicable diseases among residents. They also engage with local organizations and leaders to improve the health of the community. As the Health Officer/Director, Rausch provides guidance and oversight to the staff and programs within the department.

“Our efforts during COVID-19 are extensions of what we do every day, but just amplified based on the magnitude of COVID-19 in our community,” he says. “Historically, we may receive 200 confirmed communicable disease reports throughout the year. During three months of COVID-19, beginning mid-March, we’ve received nearly 200 laboratory-confirmed cases of COVID-19, with another several hundred contact tracing investigations associated to confirmed cases.”

This extra work required them to rapidly cross-train staff from other areas, including two interns and clerical staff, to assist in work supporting the fight against the pandemic. By mid-June, the normal staff of nine has more than doubled as they’ve brought on retired public health practitioners, nurses, public health students, and other professionals to assist with disease investigation and contact tracing work.

Rausch has spent his days in leadership roles supporting the pandemic response in Milwaukee County. In collaboration with the countywide Unified Emergency Operations Center, he is currently leading the efforts of the 11 municipal health departments to coordinate their response across sectors, including healthcare, emergency medical services, fire, police, municipal government, and more. 

“This was the first true unified response in the history of Milwaukee County, which made it both challenging and rewarding to see come to fruition,” he said.

After graduating from Cornell with a double major in chemistry and biochemistry and molecular biology, Rausch attended graduate school at the University of Iowa College of Public Health to study epidemiology. When the Unified Emergency Operations Center activated an Epidemiology Intelligence Team, Rausch volunteered to lead and coordinate it in partnership with professors and staff at both the Medical College of Wisconsin and the UW-Milwaukee Zilber School of Public Health. 

Currently, Wisconsin has reopened following the state Supreme Court overturning the statewide Safer at Home order in mid-May. Rausch’s office is continuing to monitor the data and recommend a responsible, data-driven, phased reopening of the county’s communities. They recently advanced to the next phase that recommends restaurants, bars, hair salons, and many other businesses operate at 50% capacity, and anticipate that the data will support being in this phase for most of the summer.

Going forward, the health department’s focus is shifting to plan for the next phases, which includes working with local schools, colleges, and universities to reopen for fall semester classes. They also work with healthcare partners to ensure that there will be adequate testing capacity for fall when the communities may be dealing with COVID-19, seasonal influenza, and other respiratory viruses simultaneously. 

Finally, there is a considerable amount of planning needed in anticipation of a COVID-19 vaccination and campaign to vaccinate the county’s residents in 2021. Only when that is finished can public health professionals like Rausch completely return to the work they were forced to suspend.

“Despite working very long hours at times, public health professionals are doing what needs to be done to keep our community safe. The hardest part, thinking of the coming months, is considering when we may be able to pick up the other important work that we’ve put on hold while working to investigate, control, and mitigate COVID-19 in our community.”

This Cornell alumnus will continue to study and plan for these public health emergencies as a Ph.D. candidate at the Zilber School of Public Health where he has adjunct faculty status. He’s also often lecturing at UW-Milwaukee College of Nursing, something he’s done for more than 15 years.