From experience in managing swine flu in Australia, to outbreaks of cholera, diphtheria and other communicable diseases all over the world, the wealth of experience in the Public Health Emergency Operations Centre (PHEOC) is a huge advantage as our health system tackles the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic.

But for some, like trainee public health officers Eliza Drury and Rachel Geraghty, the pandemic is their first. Read about what a day in the PHEOC looks like through their eyes.

How did you end up at the Ministry?

Eliza: We're both part of the Public Health Training Program here at the Ministry. We had both worked together previously at the NSW Rural Doctors Network, so we know each other well.

Rachel: Eliza started in the program six months before me – she told me how great it was and encouraged me to apply.

How long have you been with the Ministry now?

Eliza: I started in the program here at the Ministry in February 2018. I took a year's break in 2019 to work in London, and then returned in February this year to join the planning team being set up as part of the pandemic response.

Rachel: I have been in the Public Health Training Program since August 2018.

What work have you been involved with since joining the Ministry?

Rachel: The training program is a three-year program and you get to work in different areas on a rotation. I've been involved in health promotion, mainly in the Get Healthy in Pregnancy program, in Aboriginal health evidence and evaluation, and in childhood obesity policy. I was just starting a placement in environmental health when I was redeployed to be part of the PHEOC planning team.

Eliza: Before I left for London, I was working in the alcohol and other drugs unit in the music festival team. I also did a placement with the Centre for Epidemiology and Evidence, in Analytics Assist, the central agency for state-wide data analysis across NSW Health. I was meant to join the communicable diseases team when I returned in February this year from London – so am definitely getting the communicable disease experience I was hoping for!

What are you doing now as part of the PHEOC planning unit?

Eliza: It's really varied. We pull together the daily situational report (sitrep), which is a report summarising various key statistics and developments on the pandemic response. We're processing a lot of funeral and wedding exemption requests. We also answer enquiries from members of the public, which can be up to 50 a day. Previously we would also liaise with airlines for flight information to help our operations and contact tracing teams.

Rachel: We also shape policy and develop public health communications on things such as home isolation guidance and testing criteria. We work on house folder notes to help keep our Minister's Office informed on developments. We rotate duties every day within the team, so it gives us the opportunity to do different things and pick up new skills.

How are you finding the whole experience?

Eliza: It's a very good experience. I think it's exciting and interesting – it is very fast paced but it can be stressful at times.

Rachel: I've learnt a lot from my colleagues who have been involved in past pandemics. It's a really good team – we get along, support each other and still have a laugh while working very hard.

What's your biggest learning to date?

Rachel: For me it's really interesting to witness how Health has responded to the pandemic. Seeing how quickly the PHEOC came together, and the rapid response to the pandemic, has been a real learning for me.

Eliza: One of my biggest observations is that even the busiest people in the organisation will take the time to say hello and check in with you. Everyone has been amazing. And that matters – especially in such a busy environment.

Do family and friends ask for your advice on COVID-19? What do you tell them?

Rachel: Yes, lots of messages!

Eliza: Especially in the early days when we didn't really have a lot of information. I wanted everyone to stay calm, so I told them not to panic and that we were learning rapidly about the virus. I shared a lot of the publicly available information to ensure people weren't misinformed.

Rachel: I thought it was important to reassure them – that there's a lot of work happening behind the scenes, and letting them know to keep up to date with the information on the NSW Health and other Government websites.

Eliza: The question we get a lot now is 'when is it going to be over?' but of course, we don't know.

Do you have a message for colleagues across the system, especially those who like you, may have never experienced anything like this before?

Eliza: It can be crazy and hectic but it's an experience that many will never have. Be grateful that you are able to help.

Rachel: Take on board as much as possible during this experience and be proud of your contribution. Access your colleagues and learn from them – our team leaders in planning have been such a support – they have a wealth of experience and we can always turn to them.

Given that it's a pretty intense time at work right now, how do you unwind when you get a spare moment?

Eliza: Both of us love reading. I enjoy taking the dogs for walks. I'm also getting into the puzzle trend...

Rachel: We talk to each about what we're reading all the time. I think most of us also switch off from the news when we're not at work.​​​​​​​​​​​

Current as at: Wednesday 3 June 2020
Contact page owner: Health Protection NSW