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Geography alum coordinating local county's emergency response to COVID-19

April 3, 2020

Geography alum coordinating local county's emergency response to COVID-19

Alex McCarthy

Alex McCarthy, director of the Tuscarawas County Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, interacting with health officials and first responders during an exercise.

Alex McCarthy (second from left) with health officials and first responders during a FEMA training exercise on local implementation of the National Incident Management System in 2018.

On Jan. 23, the Tuscarawas County Health Department held its annual regional health care exercise, focusing specifically on a flu pandemic scenario. The same day, Chinese authorities shut down the city of Wuhan — a bustling metropolis of more than 11 million people — because of the coronavirus.

The timing was prescient, serving as a warning of what was to come.

“We started thinking, ‘This isn’t looking particularly good. We should probably sit down and start thinking what implications this might have,” said Alex McCarthy, director of the Tuscarawas County Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency. “When a city the size of Wuhan, China, shuts down, that shows we’ve got a serious situation.”

Two months later, the COVID-19 outbreak first identified in Wuhan has grown into a pandemic that is impacting communities around the world, and McCarthy — a geography alumnus who earned bachelor’s (’15) and master’s (’17) degrees in atmospheric sciences and meteorology — is helping Tuscarawas County through the calamity.

“We’re trying our best to assist the community,” McCarthy said. “In a time of crisis like this, what I’ve found is that most people really want to step up and make a positive difference.”

As director of the agency, one of McCarthy’s first steps was helping the health department implement the county’s emergency public information plan. Once Ohio started seeing an uptick in COVID-19 cases and as Gov. Mike DeWine began rolling out restrictions and guidelines, it was important for local officials to get the right information to his county, which is just south of Canton, Ohio.

“In a crisis like a major pandemic, the biggest tool we have at our disposal is being able to give the public the information they need and securing their trust that we’re telling them the right thing,” McCarthy said.

The agency is tasked with supporting local health care agencies and first responders in their efforts to confront COVID-19. It monitors local inventories of personal protective equipment such as facemasks, goggles and surgical gowns, and it solicits donations of equipment from other industries and redistributes it to those who need it.

McCarthy’s emergency management efforts also focus on the community itself. He’s working with food pantries, homeless shelters and domestic violence sanctuaries. He works with school districts to ensure they have what they need for children who rely on school meals continue to get fed. He’s building connections across the community to help make sure the county he serves endures this hardship is smoothly as possible.

“Tuscarawas County is a great county to work in because all these agencies involved are taking this seriously and are working together to find solutions,” McCarthy said. “When you have great relationships, from a planning perspective, you’re able to leverage those relationships, and it puts you ahead of the curve in the response.”

McCarthy’s role boils down to facilitating discussion and coordinating efforts between stakeholders of several different industries. While his background in meteorology comes into play during weather-related emergencies, he’s currently leaning on his graduate school experience mediating large discussions as he juggles communication across the county and state.

“These relationships build trust, and it really helps with the response,” he said. “People are more willing to work with us when they know we’re in it for the right reason.”

Navigating his county through this crisis can be tough, but McCarthy lauded his community’s response and its willingness to rally together. He’s also appreciative of local and state leadership and advised people to continue heeding their guidance.

“We have a lot of great health departments at the local level and the state level, and I encourage people to follow their direction,” he said. “We’re all in this together, and we’re going to get through this.”

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