RALEIGH, N.C. (WECT) - When Dr. Mandy Cohen became Secretary of North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services in 2017, she took over a governmental agency that had about 16,000 employees in 30 divisions and a budget in the billions of dollars. In her first three years, Dr. Cohen dealt with the political struggle of whether North Carolina would expand Medicaid, along with high-profile public health threats like the opioid epidemic and GenX in drinking water. Then came COVID-19 in 2020.
“This is something I could not have anticipated, I don’t think anyone could,” said Dr. Cohen, an internal medicine physician who rose to be Chief of Staff and Chief Operations Officer at the Center for Medicare Services in Washington, DC, before assuming the role of DHHS Secretary in Governor Roy Cooper’s administration.
“I heard China was dealing with it, and Wuhan,” Dr. Cohen says when asked when COVID-19 first came on her radar, and she began to think it would be an issue in the United States. “But it wasn’t until I saw the video that went viral when the Chinese government in Wuhan put up a hospital in ten days, from the ground up. It went from zero to hospital in ten days, and I said ‘Uh oh, if they need to do that kind of effort to put an entire hospital up, this is serious. This is going to be on our shores, and let’s get ready for it to be here’.”
Since early March, Dr. Cohen has taken part in near-daily media briefings to update the state’s COVID-19 status. Early in the pandemic, when Gov. Roy Cooper issued a stay at home order, much of the discussion centered on the need to “flatten the curve” to keep the virus from spreading and overwhelming the state’s hospitals. Since May 22nd, when Gov. Cooper allowed more businesses to re-open under Phase 2 of his plan, the number of cases of COVID-19 have increased dramatically, as has the number of patients hospitalized with the disease. Dr. Cohen, Gov. Cooper, and other leaders have stressed the need for people to follow the 3W’s, wearing facemasks, waiting six feet apart in public, and washing hands as keys to keeping the virus from spreading. Critics have said the governor and his team have been too slow to re-open the state’s economy, keeping businesses closed longer than necessary.
“We need to find the solutions that are right for North Carolina,” she says regarding the differences of opinions. “Understand that people have different viewpoints of the world. That is a reality. It’s a matter of how do we find that balance, help folks understand where each of us is coming from. I don’t think anyone means malice to anyone on the other side, but we definitely have different viewpoints of the world.”
With the pandemic resulting in a lot of long hours in the office, Dr. Cohen says her husband Sam, who is an attorney, has taken over a lot of the household duties involving the couple’s five-year-old and eight-year-old daughters. The two met in Boston, as she finished up her residency in internal medicine and he attended law school.
“I want to give a shout out to my wonderful husband,” Dr. Cohen said. “This is what great relationships are, sometimes one is really busy and the other is able to step in. I used to be the food shopper and cook of the family. Haven’t done that since March. I appreciate he has taken that over. He has handled the kids’ school stuff. I think they are old enough to understand what is going on. They’re not teenagers, so they are not missing their friends with the same sort of intensity that I hear from my friends who have teenagers. So, they’ve really weathered this really well. I’m really lucky from that perspective that they have done well because if they weren’t doing well and I had to think about that every day at work, I think that would have been really hard.”
Mandy Cohen’s desire to go into the healthcare field came from watching her mother, a nurse practitioner, care for patients. She also developed a desire to improve the healthcare system. After finishing her residency at Massachusetts General Hospital, Dr. Cohen worked for a short time at the Veterans Administration before joining the Center for Medicare Services, where she rose to Chief of Staff. Years before taking that position, Dr. Cohen was brought in to lend her expertise following the disastrous rollout for healthcare.gov, the Federal Health Insurance Marketplace, in 2013.
“That’s where my career leaped forward at the federal level, was to help healthcare.gov and Obamacare get back on track, which we did,” she says. “That was hard, hard work, and tense times, but I hope to be able to bring some of the lessons learned from past crises into this one. One of the big ones I took away was you’ve got to communicate. A lot. That’s why I hope folks hear from me a lot, and I think it’s very important. But also to be transparent with our data, which is why we spend a lot of time getting as much as we can on our (DHHS COVID-19) dashboard. It’s not perfect, because the way we collect data is not perfect. But communication and transparency I think are core to being able to respond in a crisis.”
It appears Dr. Cohen and her team will deal with COVID-19 case numbers and prevention techniques for the rest of 2020. She expects the pandemic to be part of daily life in North Carolina, and the United States, until a vaccine is found, which by many estimates will be late this year or early 2021.
To listen to my entire interview with Dr. Mandy Cohen, Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human services, click on any of the links below.
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