April Achter, public health epidemiologist

April Achter, public health epidemiologist at a recent town hall about COVID-19.

I am one of your local public health epidemiologists, although many in the community simply know me as “David’s mom” or “Tom’s wife.” Although I started my career in research at the university level, for the last 17 years I have worked as a field epidemiologist. Because my husband’s job moved us around a bit, I have the unique experience of working at the local, regional, state and international level. Public health is in my blood.

Public health promotes and protects the health of the people and the communities where they live. We try to prevent disease from occurring, or control the spread of an existing one. The work is a lot like motherhood, in that it is invisible until you stop doing it or something goes wrong.

A strong public health system is not exciting at all, because nothing happens. You drink the water from your tap, enjoy a meal at a local restaurant and pet your vaccinated animals. Field epidemiologists investigate epidemics and outbreaks. If we prevent an outbreak, no one knows.

We are now dealing with a public health threat, the COVID-19 pandemic. We are in the spotlight. 

Our community is on edge, and justifiably so. Over the next few weeks, we expect to see a significant increase in the number of cases, mostly due to an increase in detection as we continue to expand testing. 

This isn’t influenza. Both the severity index (how many have disease requiring oxygen or ICU interventions) and case fatality rate (how many die from the illness) are greater than seasonal flu. The good news is that 80% of those that get sick with COVID-19 will a have mild illness, which can be managed at home with rest and fluids and your doctor’s advice. 

Your small but mighty local public health team has literally been working around the clock since late February. We are trying to slow the spread, so that our healthcare providers can manage sick patients within the existing system. Although medicine has changed exponentially over the last 100 years, the rules of epidemiology essentially remain the same: Isolate the sick, quarantine the well but exposed and practice good hygiene. 

Over the last month, I have received more criticism (and yelling) from all levels of the community than at any other time in my career. Most are trying their hardest to protect their staff, family and community and they are frustrated. I get it. Alternatively, I have also been given more support from friends and colleagues than ever. Please know that your elbow bumps, your texts and your snacks (I’m all about the snacks) keep me powering through.       

We are receiving many questions about our response, how we manage cases and contacts, and what the public needs to know. We do this work every day. We track reportable diseases and intervene as appropriate.

We notify the public when a risk is identified, while we maintain patient privacy. Releasing personal information does not protect the public. Following our recommendations does.

Please know, what we really need is your help. We ask that you stay home when you are sick, practice social distancing, use trusted sources for information, save the masks for healthcare workers and sick people and check on your friends and neighbors.

If you have general questions, call our RRHD COVID-19 hotline at 540-316-6302 or visit www.vdh.virginia.gov/coronavirus.

In the words of Helen Keller, “alone we can do so little, together we can do so much.”

April Achter

Public health epidemiologist

Rappahannock-Rapidan Health District

Virginia Health Department

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(1) comment


Thank you so much for your dedication, hard work and words of wisdom from someone with expertise.

We would all do well to heed the advice of the experts and ignore those who seek to exploit this pandemic for financial or political gain.

Stay safe.

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