Public Health, Pandemics, and Podcasts

Dr. Jessica Steier’s journey through the COVID crisis and the fight against fake news.
Dr. Jessica Steier Public Health Expert
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Living through a modern-day plague is hard enough—throw in the responsibilities of being a mother, a daughter, a wife, and a small-business owner— and it’s downright impossible. The past year has been a blur. The best way I can describe it is disorienting. As a public health scientist, and co-founder and CEO of Vital Statistics Consulting, a woman-owned small business specializing in health program and policy evaluation and advanced data analytics, life has been very busy! We’ve pivoted our service offerings to include COVID-19 related research, data analysis, data dashboarding, advisement on testing protocols, analysis of disparities in vaccine uptake, and more. I feel a moral and professional obligation to apply my skillset as a public health scientist and part of me is exhilarated to feel so purposeful amidst a global pandemic. People finally have some sense of what it is that I do.

But it doesn’t stop there. As a mother to two young children, Dylan (4) and Sophia (3), much of my energy is devoted to keeping them safe, educating them, and making decisions that weigh protecting them from the virus while also affording them access to education and socialization. Not an easy balance to strike. 

My recently widowed mother is not in good health and has been going through financial hardship as she is unable to work during the pandemic. As an only child, I have taken on the responsibility of caring for her in more ways than one. (After a lifetime of her caring for me, I welcome the opportunity to return the favor, but it doesn’t come without added stress).

My husband, Ethan, is an emergency physician on the front-lines. At the beginning of the pandemic, as we watched things play out in New York City as though they were scenes from a dystopian movie—we made the painful decision to have him rent a house and live away from us for a few weeks to avoid exposing us to the virus. That didn’t last long. The separation wore on all of us mentally and emotionally—especially the children. Our safety protocol remains rigorous. Ethan showers outdoors (we live in Florida, so this is possible year-round), we do separate laundries for his work scrubs and our clothes and linens. He’s been vaccinated but still wears double masks (as we all do), and takes social distancing very seriously. I’d be lying if I said he didn’t suffer from extreme anxiety and depression which impede his ability to be “present” for the kids and me at times. The pandemic has definitely taken a toll on all of us in ways that we will only begin to fully-recognize in years to come.

Amidst all of this, I decided to launch The Unbiased Science Podcast with a friend and colleague of mine from college—Dr. Andrea Love who is a brilliant immunologist and microbiologist. With her perspective at the “micro” level and mine at the “macro” (population health level) we make a great team. Our goal is to try to tackle the rampant misinformation out there which has lethal consequences, now more than ever. We critically appraise the available data and research and then translate it for the general public. However, without any time to spare in my schedule, it is often difficult to find time to manage our social media accounts, generate posts, and prepare for and record our podcasts. It has been extremely rewarding but also very challenging.

On top of all of this, I teach a remote course in epidemiology and biostatistics to physician assistant students at Marist College. I absolutely adore teaching—and I welcome the challenge of convincing clinical students about the importance and utility of research (after all, the goal is to practice evidence-based medicine). But there goes more time from my schedule—time to prep, time to post, time to lecture, time to grade assignments and exams.

I find it very difficult to say no when people ask things of me, as so many other women (and especially mothers) do. What I’ve come to realize is that saying no is a matter of self-preservation—it’s necessary for my mental, emotional, and physical well-being. I have to say no sometimes for myself and for my family. When I’m stretched too thin, my sleep suffers, I become anxious and irritable, and my patience wears thin. I am never “proud” of who I am when I am this person. When your schedule is packed this full, something has to give and it is always me who makes a sacrifice. Sometimes that means going without a shower, or breakfast and lunch, or forgoing my 5-minute break in between back-to-back meetings. 

What I’ve come to realize is that saying 'no' is a matter of self-preservation—it’s necessary for my mental, emotional, and physical well-being.

I’ve learned the importance of delegating. This has been very hard for me, but it’s important to realize that just because other people will do the job differently than I would, that doesn’t mean that that’s a bad thing. 

Public health is not actually a male-dominated field—but the business side of it is. I cannot begin to tell you how many times I’ve been asked for my [male] business partner to join a call when it comes time to get down to brass tacks. Even as CEO, I don’t seem qualified to make final decisions and execute contracts in the eyes of many. Taking it one step further, I’m dismayed to say that our application for woman-owned business status was denied by a state certifying body on the grounds that it is inconceivable that I could ever be superior to my business partner (who happens to be an older male). It’s been disappointing and heartbreaking at times. I used to hide away my frustration and my emotions—but now I don’t. There are professional ways to articulate your emotions. I view my uniquely female communication style as an asset. I have actively fought back against these assumptions while maintaining my professionalism and remaining true to myself and my womanhood.

My advice: Be kind to yourself. Work hard. Be unapologetic. You are superwoman—we all are—especially now. Lean on others. Don’t be afraid to say no. Build in tiny breaks into your day. Practice self-care—whether that means taking an extra long shower or speaking to a therapist. You are not alone and we will all get through this together.

Jessica Steier is co-founder and CEO of Vital Statistics Consulting She has designed and executed dozens of clinical research projects and evaluations of QI interventions at hospitals, designed data-driven interventions to improve health outcomes and population health, and conducted evidence translation and value communication for private industry clients.  Dr. Steier has established herself as an expert in COVID-19, having designed and led multiple COVID-19 related research studies for the largest FQHC in New York State, and leading scientific communication of COVID-19 related topics, including diagnostic and antibody testing, population health outcomes, and COVID-19 vaccine uptake. Dr. Steier received her Master of Public Health (Evaluative Sciences) at SUNY-Stony Brook University and her Doctor of Public Health degree from the Graduate Center at the City University of New York (CUNY). She is also Co-Host of the Unbiased Science Podcast (www.unbiasedscipod.com). Though originally from Brooklyn, NY, Jessica currently lives in Jupiter, Florida with her husband and two young children, Dylan (4) and Sophia (3). She is an avid animal lover and supporter of local rescue organizations and has adopted a dog and three cats of her own.

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