Riethman, who lives in Southeast Portland, has been working long hours at home since the pandemic started back in March, though she occasionally visits her office at the public health building on East Fourth Plain Boulevard.
The Columbian caught up with Riethman to learn more about her and her work.
Tell me about yourself. How’d you land in this job?
I originally got my bachelor’s degree in chemistry, and thought I was going to go work in a lab somewhere or maybe do environmental work out in the field. I realized I needed to work with people. I started my master’s of public health program. After that I got a fellowship position that placed me with Clark County Public Health, where I’ve been since 2016. If I’m being honest I don’t think I knew what an epidemiologist was until I was applying for my master’s program. My mom is a registered nurse, so I was always exposed to the world of health care. Generally that was always the line I kind of toed. I’m very grateful I ended up where I did.
So you were an epidemiologist before the pandemic. Did your job duties change drastically once the pandemic actually started?
You know, in Clark County we were weirdly a little fortunate. We had a pretty sizable measles outbreak in 2019. Which was obviously a terrible thing and a very stressful experience and something I’d never wish on this community again, but it did give us the practice to work on a larger outbreak. We had a year there where my job was really post-measles outbreak, it was trying to get back to our normal job of routine activities of data analysis and reports. We were like, “We need to be prepared for these kind of things.” COVID-19 is definitely different than a measles outbreak, but the principles are the same.
Is a pandemic something you ever expected to happen?
I want to say yes and no. It’s definitely something that, especially getting my master’s in public health in epidemiology, it’s something we always talked about — when that big pandemic hits, kind of like in this area when people talk about “The Big One” (earthquake). It was like an inevitability. But it was off the horizon, not like this big looming threat. That changed a bit when we had a measles outbreak last year. Did we expect the biggest outbreak in 100 years? No we did not expect that.