Best on the Shoreline!
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Karen Ann Wolujewicz took over as director of health for Quinniack Valley Health District in August, taking on the task in the midst of a pandemic. (Photo courtesy of Karen Ann Wolujewicz )
Growing up in North Haven, Karen Ann Wolujewicz always dreamt of becoming a doctor. After studying biology at Villanova with a plan of taking that path, she was inspired by her aunt Ofelia Calubiran, an infectious disease physician, to take a different path. Calubiran suggested that Karen Ann look into Yale School of Public Health and gave her several books on public health and epidemiology.
“She really brought to light what public health is and made me excited for public service,” says Karen Ann. “Ultimately pursuing a medical degree, you’re focusing on the individual and ensuring health of an individual, but in public health, we’re looking at the health and wellness of entire community.”
After earning her master’s in public health, Karen Ann had a fellowship in epidemic intelligence in Florida where she traveled the state to jails, hospitals, and even petting zoos to investigate outbreaks. She missed her family and her hometown and moved back to New England, working for two separate county health departments in New Jersey from 2010 to 2020.
The past year has been full of transitions for Karen Ann. She and her husband, Paul, welcomed their first child in March, just after lockdown began. A few months later, Karen Ann heard about an opening much closer to her hometown—director of health for Quinnipiack Valley Health Department (QVHD)—and after getting the position, the family found a house in Guilford.
“With the pandemic, it really opened our eyes that we wanted to be closer to family and it was a fortuitous event for me to find job and moved to Guilford,” says Karen Ann. “There were a lot of changes this year. I had my first son, bought my first house, started a new job—everything that can be stressful—but what gets me through is I feel a true mission and calling for public health and wanted to be at the forefront of the pandemic serving the community where I was raised.”
Karen Ann has fond memories of growing up in North Haven and though she and her family tried to move back to her hometown where her parents and one of her aunts still live, they couldn’t find a house. She was happy to find a home in Guilford and be able to have a job that brings her back to her roots.
Starting as director of QVHD in August, Karen Ann hit the ground running with her team as the world was already nearly five months into the pandemic. Though it was stressful, she leaned on the support of her family and the experience she gained through her education, her fellowship, and her career.
“I’ve been able to take my knowledge and experiences to be able to lead QVHD through response efforts to protect our community,” says Karen Ann. “I couldn’t have taken this position knowing its challenges and demands without the support of my family. I’m so thankful for them because they allow me to do what I need to do to.”
The biggest focus for Karen Ann and the QVHD at the moment is on COVID vaccines. From Jan. 21 to March 5, QVHD has hosted 15 clinics, administering more than 1,000 doses of the vaccine to the first responders, the senior population, and educators.
Because of the limited number of vaccine doses available, QVHD has run closed clinics for the populations mentioned above by working with the local senior centers. In North Haven, she has worked closely with the staff of the North Haven senior center as well as the First Selectman’s Office.
“I can’t express our gratitude enough to the Town of North Haven, the First Selectman’s Office, and the senior center,” says Karen Ann. “That partnership has allowed us to schedule and ensure that the individuals coming to clinics are eligible. Throughout this time, they have received many phone calls from residents about accessing the vaccine, especially for older individuals without emails or who are as savvy with navigating the Internet to register in VAMS.”
Karen Ann says it’s “no secret” that the VAMS system has created “a huge barrier” and she credits the Town of North Haven’s staff with helping residents navigate the system and even bypass the system in order to schedule vaccines.
“We’re grateful for all of the community support and volunteers who help drive QVHD’s COVID-19 vaccine clinics as we work towards the shared goal of bringing our families and loved ones back together,” she says.
Karen Ann and her staff were able to focus on creating the clinics and appointment times and the town staff then connected with the community to fill the appointment times with eligible residents.
“Their help allowed us to be able to implement the clinic and administer the vaccine,” says Karen Ann. “To be able to work where I grew up and be able to give back to the community that gave so much to me growing up is such a great feeling.”
While Karen Ann is happy that she is able to contribute to the health and wellness of the community during the COVID-19 pandemic through her education and experience, she is looking forward to the day where her department is able to return to normal. During non-pandemic times, as QVHD’s director, Karen Ann is responsible for administrative planning, supervising public health program, monitoring the health status of the community, identifying health problems in the community, educating and empowering individuals in the community in terms of public health, mobilizing community partnerships to address health issues and health equity, developing public health policies and plans, and more.
She is hoping that an upside of the COVID-19 pandemic will be a greater focus on public health and QVHD and its mission. While she and QVHD are focusing on vaccinating the public, she encourages residents to continue to do their part through wearing a mask, social distancing, and following other guidelines.
“Even when you’re vaccinated, it’s important to continue do your part to slow the spread,” says Karen Ann. “I would love to have a crystal ball and have a prediction of where this is going. But this is a great time to highlight public health and show people what we can do.”
Jenn McCulloch is the Correspondent for Zip06. Email Jenn at .