As evidenced throughout the last few months, the COVID-19 pandemic has forever changed our nation’s landscape, but through it all, one thing has remained certain – leaders in health and human services are needed now more than ever. This week in our new three-part series, Profiles of Courage: CHHS Alumni on the Frontlines, we’ll recognize some of our alumni. From healthcare workers to social service advocates to educators, each are making a bold difference in their communities. It is our honor to share their stories of courage.
As waves of COVID-19 spread all over the world, Fresno County was preparing and one person was at the helm of it all – 1986 public health alumnus, David Pomaville. As director of the Fresno County Department of Public Health, Pomaville’s role is to ensure the health and safety of Valley residents. In these challenging times, he has become a voice of reassurance and strength.
On March 7, the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Fresno County. What has transpired in the past six weeks has been unlike anything Pomaville has ever experienced in his 34 years in the public health field. When asked how he is adjusting to the fast-moving changes, he mentions long, but productive, days.
“I have not seen anything like COVID-19 in my career thus far, so it’s been a lot of firsts for me and for everybody here at the Department of Public Health and on the healthcare front,” Pomaville said. “This is a really important issue, but we’re not in this alone. This situation is obviously occurring worldwide and it’s going to be the most studied disease we will ever encounter, I think, in our lifetime.”
Pomaville is quick to credit his team, which includes 380 employees in six divisions, for their swift response and for providing the necessary resources to the community in areas including emergency medical services, public health nursing, children’s services, health and wellness, environmental health, and community health, which is where COVID-19 pandemic falls under. However, each division has been affected in some way.
“Everybody has been impacted, either by having to make adjustments in terms of how they’re delivering services, like our children’s medical services and our public health nursing programs are having to make adjustments in regards to how they’re working with their clients,” Pomaville said. “A lot of individuals who are working in programs like smoking cessation or obesity prevention and so forth, they’ve been shifted to work on the COVID-19 response. So we’ve had to change how we operate the department. We’ve actually implemented a whole new management structure, what we call the incident command structure, which allows our department to shift its priorities to address the most pressing needs.”
In late December, the World Health Organization was alerted to an outbreak of pneumonia in Wuhan, China, later identified as a new novel coronavirus. By early January, Pomaville and local officials had it on their radar and were carefully watching the situation play out, with heightened awareness that the disease had the potential to reach Fresno County and its 999,000 residents, in just a matter of time.
“As we started to see concerns across China increase and into Europe, and then concerns in the United States, we escalated our response,” Pomaville said.
This included working closely with hospitals and healthcare systems to ensure they had the necessary resources to handle the impending surge of patients. They also began working with school districts within Fresno County and put heavy emphasis on travel early on, quarantining residents during that time period who had just returned from China in order to mitigate risks of the virus spreading in Fresno.
Pomaville and his team quickly got to work forming a coalition comprised of local leaders from community-based and faith-based organizations, who work with large populations.
“These groups provide a lot of services to residents, and we wanted to make sure they knew and understood the significance of having protective measures in place and in providing credible information out to the community,” Pomaville said. “We really tried to get into a rhythm of having ongoing communication with them and sharing as much information as we had to make sure they were prepared as the situation changed dramatically. I think that was a very proactive step in helping to manage the number of cases in the Central Valley.”
As of today, just 52 days after the first confirmed case in Fresno County, there are now 419 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Fresno County. Pomaville notes there is still much to be done.
“Every week has been different and has presented new challenges,” Pomaville said. “We want to make sure we make good steps as we start to come back together as a community.”
When Pomaville received his bachelor’s degree in Health Science (with an emphasis in Environmental Health) nearly 35 years ago, he never would have imagined where his profession would take him today, leading the charge on the biggest health crisis of our time. Although Pomaville has a rich history in the profession, he almost didn’t get into the field. After spending two years exploring a few other majors like criminology and biology, he ultimately found his passion in health science, thanks to the encouragement of his former professor and now mentor, Dr. David Utterback, who also later had a long career with the CDC.
Much like the mentors who paved his path, Pomaville is committed to doing the same for current Fresno State students, many of whom intern at the Department of Public Health or go on to have distinguished careers in the field. He said some of the current health education interns have stayed on to work with them throughout this crisis.
“We’ve continued to give them opportunities and I think they’ve had a very eye-opening experience being able to work right alongside us here at the Department of Public Health,” Pomaville said. “We want to continue that relationship because we really believe that the next generation of leaders are being trained through this COVID response and there’s a lot of systems that are going to change as a result of all of this and really, they are at the forefront of it.”
As for himself, Pomaville credits his education for preparing him to lead today.
“My experience at Fresno State was remarkable,” Pomaville said. “I have to say, when this whole pandemic started, I wasn’t ready for it, but I really had to change my thinking and be prepared to lead the organization through this. Fresno State gave me the foundation to do that. In these last few weeks, I’ve just been so proud of Fresno State and how they’ve been such a great partner to us in public health. It means a lot to me as a person and it’s given me a lot of pride as a Bulldog.”
His close-knit ties to the University remain strong. His wife, Dr. Fran Pomaville, is a professor of Speech-Language Pathology, at Fresno State and his son, Matt, also graduated from the University and is also pursuing a Ph.D. in the health sciences field.
As Pomaville continues to guide the county, his outlook is optimistic and reassuring at best – but his faith in the community is what truly gives him hope in this time.
“In the Central Valley, and particularly in Fresno, we’ve gone through hard times before and I know we’re going to have some hard times ahead,” Pomaville said. “We are a very giving community who supports each other very well, and I think if we’re patient and we trust each other, then the community will do very well together, and we’ll get through this. There’s no doubt in our minds.”
To learn more about the latest developments of COVID-19 and how it’s affecting Fresno State, visit the University’s official COVID-19 webpage.