One-on-one with health official taking on new role at Knox County Health Department

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — We’re meeting a leader taking on a greater role at the Knox County Health Department as COVID-19 cases surge. Roberta Sturm has taken over as the Director of Communicable and Environmental Disease and Emergency Preparedness.

We saw Sturm’s predecessor Charity Menefee working alongside Health Director Dr. Martha Buchanan – stepping up to the podium when the health department was holding daily briefings. Sturm says COVID-19 and the response to it is one of her main priorities, but not her only one.

“Really to kind of look not only at the COVID response, but also to start looking beyond that. Eventually, we’re going to get in a post-pandemic world and I’m very glad to be part of the leadership team that is going to be focusing on what public health looks like post-pandemic,” Sturm said.

Sturm has been in her new role for a little over a week.

“I’m over about 65 individuals and making sure their programs run efficiently and offering my knowledge and my expertise, and to also be a person for them, a leader for them, to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to get our messages out in the community and do the work that we are supposed to be doing,” she said.

Previously the lead epidemiologist at KCHD, Sturm is no stranger to handling disease and outbreaks. In her new role, she acknowledges COVID will likely still take center stage, though she says the job looks different this year.

“We’ve learned what works best with contact tracing. We’ve learned how we can get our message across more effectively. We have a vaccine now, which we didn’t have before. So it’s a different approach than where we were last year,” she said.

We also asked Strum about the health department’s role with contact tracing within Knox County Schools.

“Our contact tracing hasn’t changed, that’s something we’ve done through the entire pandemic. We don’t maybe have the breadth of contact tracers that we had this time last year, but we’re bringing on a lot more staff to be able to handle that. We do contract tracing for every single case that we interview,” Strum said.

But 2021 has also brought a new message from the department. Remember when we heard “five core actions” repeatedly? They’ve now added another measure to the top of the list: get a vaccine.

“Vaccination is still the best tool that we have against this virus, and we encourage you to get vaccinated. If you’re unsure, have that conversation with your primary care physician,” said Sturm, “They know your medical history.”

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