SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — Gail O’Neill, the Sangamon County Public Health Director, is retiring at the end of September, capping off a nearly 40-year career in public health education.
After leading the county through the COVID-19 pandemic and with one week left until retirement, she’s is reflecting on a long career in public health.
Her first job in public health education had her teaching kids the basics.
“I would teach little kids and kindergarteners about brushing their teeth,” O’Neill said. “And at that time, I pushed around a reel to reel camera projector from classroom to classroom.”
By the end of her career, she was tasked with leading an entire county’s worth of people through a global pandemic.
She started with the Springfield Public Health Department and eventually became the Assistant Director there. Then, in 2006, the city health department merged with the county health department.
She continued to work at the county and eventually she was appointed as the Director of Public Health in 2019, one year before COVID lockdowns began.
O’Neill’s job typically has her working behind the scenes, but the pandemic made her one of the more recognizable public officials in the area.
“People now say when we see Gail coming on the news, it’s not a good sign,” O’Neill said with a laugh.
Hardly a day went by where people didn’t see her face on a Zoom call on the news. She was tasked with translating the constantly evolving directives and advice from higher-ups, and it was never easy.
“You get mixed messages,” O’Neill said. “We might have told you one thing one day and then had to say something else the next, and that causes a little distrust in the community.”
Top doctors said it was invaluable having a well-known and trusted figure like O’Neill there to relay the latest information.
“What I saw from Gail is a willingness to go to the community again, and again and again, and say, ‘Here’s what we need to do,'” said Dr. Rajesh Govindaiah, chief physician executive for Memorial Health.
County board members are also quick to praise O’Neill. They knew when she came to them with the latest orders, they knew they might not like what they heard, but they understood she had the people’s best interest at heart.
“The amazing thing about that situation, sure, it was very trying, but because of her ability to show such strong, steady handedness through all of that,” County Board Member James Schackman said. “It was easy to trust her and to accept what she was saying to, not only myself, but to everyone.”
COVID tested — and in many cases broke — that trust, though. Frustrations with the shutdowns, conspiracies about vaccines and calls to defy from even the highest levels of government lead to unprecedented amounts of the distrust for medicine nationwide. O’Neill could feel that trust breaking, but it still surprised her when she saw so many reject the vaccine.
“I mean it’s still a choice, but for the most part, we had never really heard of people who wouldn’t take something,” O’Neill said.
She knows it wasn’t always like this. She remembered a meningitis outbreak in children that happened in Sangamon County in the 90s. Two children died as a result of that outbreak, and when the Public Health Department held a vaccination at the clinic, people could not line up fast enough. According to a State-Journal Register Article from the time, the county was able to vaccinate 22,000 children in just one week.
“It was cold, and people came,” O’Neill said. “It actually worked. But that was one time where if people trusted us unconditionally.”
O’Neill knows that trust won’t be mended as quickly as it was broken, but she does hope that the lessons learned from the pandemic don’t fade.
“There’s just so many things that we do that we need to highlight, so the public doesn’t think we’re just, you know, the COVID police,” O’Neill said.
More than anything, though, she said public health officials need to keep one thing in mind. It’s a lesson she focused on during her 38-year-career.
“They need to know you before the emergency happens,” she said.