Madison Schaeffer '11 Leads State Epidemiology Efforts

Epidemiologist Madison Schaeffer ’11 helped make New Mexico an early COVID-19 success story. Below, she talks about her work, the state of her state, and Bryn Mawr.

Everyone talks about epidemiology, but can you explain exactly what it is?

Epidemiology is the practice of using data and evidence to help improve population health. If you think about a doctor helping a patient, epidemiologists do similar things, but instead of helping one person at a time, we help many. In the COVID-19 epidemic, epidemiologists have a lot of roles. We communicate information to the public to help them make the safest decisions for themselves and their families. We use evidence to support policy, e.g., mask mandates and social distancing. We are also the people performing contact tracing to help make sure people quarantine after having an exposure. Epidemiologists wear many hats!

What specifically is your work?

I’m the lead epidemiologist for the COVID-19 hotline at the N.M. Department of Health. Our state has a 24/7 hotline that members of the public, medical professionals, and first responders can call with questions or concerns. The team I coordinate consists of nurses, epidemiologists, and health educators, and my job is guiding and supporting them to ensure that we give the best possible help. We handle thousands of questions each week, ranging from positive cases who need guidance to business owners wanting to come up with travel policies for their employees.

How has New Mexico fared in the pandemic? 

New Mexico is a profound success story. Some of this is due to our governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, who has made some incredibly hard choices to keep citizens safe. But I believe that a lot of our success is due to the incredibly hard work of the people here at the Department of Health. Our outcomes have been so much better than surrounding states. Our test positivity rate, which is a measure of how much the virus is spreading in the population, is around 2.5 percent. Arizona and Texas are 15 percent or higher. We have fewer cases per capita than any other Southwestern state.

What have the challenges been?

New Mexico has a relatively small population, so our health department is not enormous. We are all putting in a lot of hours, and the work is emotionally, physically, and mentally difficult. I’ve had days where my FitBit crossed 20,000 steps.

But the hardest part is trying to help people who are scared, grieving, or extremely sick. I have had conversations with parents whose young children were in the ICU. I’ve talked with a spouse whose partner of more than 50 years just died alone in the hospital. These conversations are heartbreaking. I think all of us will carry them with us for the rest of our lives. And I’ll be honest: it’s difficult to be doing this job and to feel that so many Americans aren’t taking this seriously.

Successes?

To me, the real value of what we do is in the conversations we have every day. I have probably made hundreds if not thousands of calls at this point. But I never take it for granted when I hear, “Thank you, I feel so much better now.” We make frightened people laugh. We offer solace to the grieving. We guide people who feel lost. I truly believe we have made a difference in terms of the number of cases in New Mexico by telling people who were exposed to stay home.

How did you come to this work?

When I was a kid, I read my dad’s copy of The Hot Zone and got hooked. When I was in second grade, we had to do a journal assignment talking about what we wanted to do when we grew up. Everyone else drew astronauts or nurses. I drew myself in a biohazard suit. There was definitely a parent-teacher conference over that one!

I had a phone call a few weeks ago where I introduced myself to a caller and said that I was an epidemiologist. She said, “Oh, my 6-year-old daughter will be so excited! She wants to be one when she grows up!” It was the first time I’d ever heard that. Even on the worst days, I’m still so lucky to get to get to do this thing that I’ve dreamed of doing since I was a little girl. And it’s amazing to know that the help we are giving has made children view us as role models.

What was your pre-COVID-19 job?

In my “real life,” I’m our emergency medical systems epidemiologist. I work with ambulance service and trauma data to help support our state’s acute care system. I had some emergency on-call training. I volunteered for a shift at the call center and somehow found myself helping run it.

What impact did Bryn Mawr education have on you and your career trajectory?

I was a biology major. I’ll always be grateful to the professors in that department (and particularly Tamara Davis) for helping me think about science as interdisciplinary. I’m now in a field that draws in many aspects of other fields, including medicine and communication. My liberal arts degree taught me how to communicate science effectively even to people who aren’t scientists. It showed me that different perspectives have value.

And beyond the classroom?

I honestly think the biggest impact BMC had on me had nothing to do with academics. I had quite a few leadership roles on campus. I was an HA, and that job taught me so much about who I am and just how capable I can be. Sure, some of it was mouse infestations and broken washers, but a lot of it was helping people through some really difficult things. I talked to a student figuring out how to come out to her parents. I supported someone dealing with trauma from sexual assault.

During my senior year, my hall somehow managed to have one big emergency after another. I once called Carolyn Lloyd ’99 (then the assistant residential life director) at three in the morning about one of them. I felt like I was in over my head. She said, “What can I give you to help you do what you need to do?” I have had many incredible role models since then, but she got me started on the path of helping people to help themselves. These days, the sentence I use more than any other is, “How can I help?”