Wilkes County Health Department Director Rachel Willard was presented with the 2022 Ron H. Levine Public Health Award at the annual N.C. Public Health Leader’s Conference on May 19 in Raleigh.
Willard was recognized for her hard work and dedication during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Our public health directors served as the backbone of the COVID-19 response and they continue to be the frontline defenders for the health and wellbeing of everyone in their communities,” said Beth Lovette, deputy director and section chief, local community support of the N.C. Division of Public Health.
“They are all so deserving of this award, and their dedication and commitment to their residents is an example for us all,” added Lovette, a Wilkes resident and former Wilkes Health Department director.
The Ron Levine Legacy Award is named for a former N.C. state health director. The award has been presented to
Since 2004, the award has been presented to 28 people for their efforts to improve the public health system, expand the scope or capacity of public health services or build new and lasting partnerships in the interest of public health.
Willard was appointed Wilkes health director on Feb. 1, 2019, following the retirement of Ann Absher from that position.
Willard began her career at the Wilkes Health Department as health education supervisor. The second child of Willard and her husband was born in March 2020, as the COVID-19 was starting to be keenly felt in Wilkes.
Willard was still on maternity leave in mid-March 2020, when she joined local government officials for a press conference announcing the declaration of a state of emergency due to COVID-19. This included prohibiting gatherings of 100 or more people through the end of April of that year. In connection with this, it was announced that MerleFest was postponed.
Willard said during the press conference that there had been no confirmed cases of COVID 19 in Wilkes yet, five people in the county had been tested and results awaited.
Willard was recognized for always being an advocate for public health and for leading efforts in response to COVID-19 since March 2020.
A Wilkes Health Department press release said that as the new Wilkes health director, she experienced statewide restrictions on travel, limitations on group gatherings and closures of schools, restaurants, movie theaters and certain other businesses and cancelation of youth sporting events.
“Once a vaccine was available, she had the challenge of creating testing sites for community members, setting up several mass vaccine clinic sites, as well as continuing to provide essential services for the community. She has often said this is what public health is all about,” the release stated.
The release said Willard faced COVID-19 outbreaks in nursing homes, congregate living facilities, meat processing facilities (Tyson Foods Inc.) and government agencies.
“Throughout COVID, after countless 12-plus-hour days for months, countless setbacks, constant defending of mandates and restrictions, criticism from community members or officials and staff turnover, she remains positive and true to public health,” the release said.
“No matter what challenges she was facing, she always made it a point to make sure staff knew if they needed anything, she was there for them. Wilkes Health (Department) is proud of everything that she has done during her tenure” there.