It’s a busy office on a good day — shot clinics, nutritional counseling, mental health advice, prenatal check-ups, TB monitoring, STD testing, birth control. Just your normal, day-to-day job of keeping a community healthy.

“Overall, we’re about healthy living and prevention. Our goal is to have healthy people in the community,” said Belen Public Health Office nurse supervisor Melinda Ivey.

Throw in a pandemic and things get really interesting.

Helping to make sure the community is healthy and safe, whether there’s a pandemic happening or not, are the members of the Belen Public Health Office. From left are, Melinda Ivey, public health nurse and nurse supervisor for the Belen office; Tia Montoya, public health nurse; Anita Lozano, Families FIRST nurse, and Ashley Campbell, public health clerk.
Julia M. Dendinger | News-Bulletin photos

As COVID-19 has stormed through Valencia County, the staff of four at the Belen Public Health Office have donned their gowns and masks and waded into the unknown. The women have set up test sites, at the Belen office and at sites across the county, spent endless hours manning the local COVID-19 hotline and tried to continue providing the office’s regular services.

Through it all, they have remained dedicated to the health of the community and say the vast number of partnerships with local agencies and organizations have allowed them to do what they do.

For their continued efforts to keep the community safe and informed, the staff of the Belen Public Health Office is one of the Valencia County News-Bulletin’s Unsung Heroes for 2020.

Public health nurse Tia Montoya says public health workers as a whole have started to feel a bit like unsung heroes since the pandemic began.

“I think we truly feel that way, that our importance, our relevance is known now,” Montoya said.

Having the services of public health offices in general highlighted during the pandemic has offered the public some insight into what the offices do, said Ashley Campbell, the public health clerk for the Belen office.

“Maybe they’ll see our office a little bit in a different light. Instead of the place just handing out ‘brown bags’ or getting immunizations, this has put us under a whole different spectrum,” Campbell said. “We’re doing it for our community because we did grow up here, decided to settle down here. This is not something that we’re doing just to do it. It’s something we actually care about — our community being healthy.

“And we’re OK with being unsung, yeah. We chose this path because we do want to help our community and we feel proud about representing Valencia County.”

But all the work they have done and continue to do couldn’t have happened without the collaboration with many other agencies across the county, Ivey said.

“The collaboration in the face of this overwhelming situation has been amazing. You look at how all the different chiefs — fire and law enforcement — have dedicated their time and man power. They didn’t have to but they attend our events here, they learned to swab, they helped us do surveillance,” she said. “They actually took it upon themselves to go in and help with surveillance of some of the adult living facilities in Los Lunas.”

Tia Montoya, public health nurse, and Anita Lozano, the Families FIRST nurse, with the Belen Public Health Office double check the information of people who have registered to have a COVID-19 test at one of their bi-weekly test events.

Ivey continued, saying the employees of Belen Consolidated Schools have also been amazing, with the district’s head nurse Deborah Baca in constant contact with the public health office, Superintendent Diane Vallejos and David Carter, BCS director of support services, allowing the office to set up large-scale COVID-19 testing events at their facilities.

“They were all involved and let their people participate in expanding our capabilities, they’re doing it because they want to. They do it for the community and the people,” she said. “That’s just amazing. We are one of the only communities in the state of New Mexico who has had the fire department, the fire chief, the police chief and the mayor all on board, on the same page with assisting us test.”

But before all this began, before COVID-19 became a part of daily life, there was an oddly prescient occurrence at the Belen office.

Before the first positive case in the U.S. was diagnosed in January, a patient came into the office needing vaccinations to travel to Thailand.

“And I actually had just started in December, so being this new public health worker, there I was, all about the CDC,” said Montoya. “I was all about reading up on contagions and saw there was what they were calling an unknown pneumonia migrating through southeast Asia.

“I mentioned this to our patient, gave them some mitigation steps like you would for the flu. So even before it got here per se, we were already active in letting people know what was happening. It was pretty cool, in a ‘Yeah! Public health!’ way.”

When March rolled around and the then identified COVID-19 came to New Mexico, it was already on the staff’s radar. As positive cases began to pop up, Ivey said their main priority was focusing on how to help people in the community.

Anita Lozano, the Families FIRST nurse with the Belen Public Health Office, gets paperwork ready for a client at one of the offices many COVID-19 drive-thru test events. The office holds testing regularly on Tuesday and Friday mornings.

“We actually were the first swabbing station in New Mexico for the public health offices. There were others at Presbyterian and Lovelace hospitals, but this was the pilot location for public health offices,” she said. “We were gathering information on how traffic patterns were going work, how we were setting up the actual swabs, using the (testing) media, kind of the whole thing,” she said.

The public health nurse at the Los Lunas Public Health Office relocated to the Belen office for a time after the nurse supervisor retired just as the pandemic started, and helped answer the COVID-19 hotline.

“We were nonstop on the phone. This started right with the flu and allergy season, so we were helping people to determine what they were experiencing,” Montoya said. “Melinda’s reputation helped because people know she’s a go-getter, and that helped us to start a lot of things in this little office with four people. A lot of things started here that ended up becoming bigger programs, and I think a lot of that has to do with our relationship with a lot of the community.”

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Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.