Londoners in 1854 were outraged when Dr. John Snow removed the handle from a neighborhood well, rendering it useless because he suspected the water was contaminated with cholera. Never mind that the pioneering scientist stopped a deadly outbreak; the extra walk to another well caused folks to come unglued.
Dr. Angela Dunn, Utah’s state epidemiologist, never thought she’d become the target of a hostile protest for trying to curb Utah’s COVID-19 outbreak by recommending state-mandated mask-wearing, but she learned firsthand that history repeats itself.
“Yeah that was weird,” she says of a group identifying themselves as My Right who spread her personal information on social media and held a protest at her home. “People were fatigued and frustrated—I shouldn’t have been surprised that some of that turned onto me. But I was appointed to this position and every recommendation I made was based on data, not politics. So it was strange to suddenly be treated as if I was an elected official. I have zero political aspirations.”
Dunn says she certainly never expected to be a household name in Utah, but her straight-talking, no-nonsense briefings have bannered our news feeds for over a year. Accepting an epidemiologist assignment with the Utah Department of Health in 2014, she became the state’s go-to doctor just four years later. Dispensing information to reporters, advising officials and health care providers, orchestrating coordinated medical efforts and working to effectively distribute the vaccine, we’re not sure she’s had a decent night’s sleep since 2019.
While some misdirected anger has been thrown her way, she says she’s been equally surprised by the “I love Dr. Dunn” T-shirts (“I told my son he’d better wear one,” she jokes), and laughs about nabbing a spot on InStyle’s list of the top 50 female health care workers.
Learning to mix with all kinds of people and make friends wherever she lands has proven invaluable for Dunn. Born in Texas, she says she “grew up everywhere.” Her family moved around the country every few years to follow her dad’s job. By the time she reached adulthood, the nomadic lifestyle had grown on her. After earning her bachelor’s degree from Brown University in New Hampshire, her medical training and later her fellowship with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) took her across the country and even to remote parts of the world. Field work in Sierra Leone, ground-zero for the Ebola outbreak in Africa, taught her important lessons when working with longstanding cultures and communities.
“We were finding that Ebola is most contagious at the time of death,” she says, and sacred tribal burial practices acted as superspreader events. Yet CDC recommendations often fell on deaf ears, even during a deadly epidemic, as the fear of ignoring these burial rites proved more powerful than the fear of Ebola. “That’s when we searched out the chiefs to help lead the change,” she says, describing the process of building trust with tribal and religious heads as a task requiring creativity, empathy and compromise.
Six years later, she found herself revisiting those same lessons in her own community while dealing with COVID-19. “When some people weren’t willing to wear masks in Utah, we looked to LDS church leadership,” she says, adding that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints leaders acted swiftly to encourage mask wearing among its fold of 2.1 million Utahns because, she says, they recognized that it was the right thing to do. “What was interesting to me was seeing some church members conflicted because they were also supporting President Trump, who was telling them something different.”
Dunn says she’s never experienced the scale at which politics played a role in public health before this pandemic. “Being a scientist that tries to shape policy, I’ve always had the luxury of a singular goal: to keep people safe,” she says. But, Dunn says, there were days she felt as though she were being “punched in the gut.” She was working against a political movement that belittled scientific expertise and battling false accusations that claimed public health officials live in a vacuum and are not concerned whether their recommendations shatter the economy.
As a mother of two young boys, she admits there were many disquieting days. “When your 8-year-old is asking whether you’ll be missing dinner again, and you feel like you’re banging your head against a wall, it becomes hard not to wonder, am I making a difference? Has it been worth the past year of my life?”
Our answer is a resounding “yes.” That unwavering push for a statewide mask mandate, for instance, was found to “save both lives and livelihoods,” when it was finally implemented in late 2020. According to a 64-page report by researchers at the David Eccles School of Business later that same month, the mandate not only helped slow the spread of coronavirus but also drove an increase in consumer confidence and consumer activity.
When Dunn accepted the Department of Health position in Utah nearly seven years ago, she and her civil engineer husband, Alejandro, had never stepped foot in the Beehive state. Although they had no experience with mountain recreation, it appealed to them. “We figured if it stinks, we’re only here two years and if it doesn’t, our plan was to stay no longer than five.” But, she says, plans change. They fell in love with the community and the lifestyle, picking up local activities like backpacking, trail running, climbing and mountain biking. “We were both surprised how much we loved it here and loved raising our kids here,” she says, adding that perhaps her nomadic days are at an end.
Although she describes the past year as exhausting, Angela says she’s been honored and humbled to hold the position she has during a worldwide pandemic. “I’ve been proud to live here and serve the purpose I have, surrounded by a team who is fearless and tireless,” she says. “It’s been discouraging at times, yes, but I’ve also been moved and changed and encouraged by good people everywhere.”
Since the publication of this article in our print issue, Dr. Angela Dunn has announced she will step down as the State Epidemiologist to become executive health director of Salt Lake County. This story is part of our series on coronavirus heroes. Read all of them here.