Heather Amos was working in the media relations office at the University of British Columbia (UBC) three years ago when a colleague gave her a lead on a job opening at the BC Centre of Disease Control (BCCDC). She immediately took interest but of course had no idea what would be in store just a couple years later.
“Before joining PHSA, I was interested in public health and, at the time, I was particularly intrigued by the work around the toxic drug crisis in B.C.,” says Heather. “I could see how important the work was/is at BCCDC and recognized the job as an opportunity to be a part of the effort to improve health and prevent harms. I wanted to be a part of that!”
Heather is now a member of the PHSA communications team as a communications officer for the BCCDC. In this role, she supports both internal and external communication with a heavy media focus. She works with reporters and subject matter experts at BCCDC to provide the most accurate and clear information to the public.
“Being the Communications Officer for BCCDC is no small task,” says Vincent Chou, communications officer on PHSA’s media relations team. “On any given day, there could be an outbreak, food recall warning or killer hornets you need to warn British Columbians about. Heather routinely handles about 1500-2000 media requests a year, in addition to various web updates, public service announcements, social media posts along with regular meetings. I have had the great pleasure of working with her to know first-hand how hardworking and smart she is. She is also both patient and kind, making her an even better person who I respect immensely.”
Ramping things up once the pandemic hit
The number of media requests significantly increased when the COVID-19 pandemic was declared in 2020. At the beginning, Heather remembers receiving up to 40 media requests a day! Over the course of the past 18 months, the people of British Columbia have looked to the BCCDC as their source of truth for public health information, which required coordination between many different teams.
“From April to July 2020, Heather chaired a series of communications meetings which were held twice a week. These meetings involved health emergency coordination centre, BC Ministry of Health, HealthLink BC, Immunize BC and a number of internal partners at BCCDC. Heather saw the importance of building these relationships and as a result, kept us from duplicating services or communicating different messages. Heather was the glue that held us together,” says Melanie Kurrein, project manager, Knowledge Translation, COVID-19 Response, BCCDC.
“She is the epitome of living the PHSA values, notably serving with purpose and developing partnerships. She is also passionate and truly focused on what British Columbians need to know to be informed and make decisions,” says Libby Brown, director, Communications and Stakeholder Engagement, PHSA.
Keeping up with the website while traffic increased by 1,870% in 2020
With the BCCDC website being such a prominent channel for communication, Heather worked tirelessly to keep it up to date throughout the pandemic. It has been crucial to help the public make informed decisions during the state of emergency.
“The amount of work that has gone into making information available on our website is hard to put into words,” says Heather, “Day after day, I work with BCCDC’s Knowledge Translation team to take complex information and try to make it accessible for those who need to read it. Though gruelling at times, we know that is important work. We can tell from the amount of traffic on our website that people have been looking for information. I feel proud that I have been able to help in that way but it has definitely not been all me.”
Melanie says that the Knowledge Translation team would not have been successful without Heather’s support. “Many do not see the nuances between communications and knowledge translation. They are quite different but they work together,” she says. “Heather has done an amazing job at making that possible. She has always been open to hearing our thoughts and considering the way we write. Despite being so busy, she is always open to new ideas and is involved in advancing them!”
Seeing the success of her efforts and pressing on alongside inspirational people
As Heather looks back on everything that has happened in the past 18 months, there are so many milestones to celebrate. Introducing the COVID-19 digital assistant on the BCCDC website, launching two big public surveys (with 400,000 participants for the first and 200,000 for the second), and releasing the rinse and gargle test for school-age children to name just a few.
“The people I work with have continued to keep what is best for the public in mind and have based decisions on the evidence and their experience and knowledge. I find it amazing how everyone has continued to stay on track and has refrained from the influence of negativity. It is hard to be in the public eye, completely vulnerable to scrutiny, and still get up every day to do your job. However, that is what I have seen – people serving with greater purpose and a desire to do good,” says Heather.
When Heather discovered she had received a PHSA+ Award (an internal recognition program), she was incredibly honoured and very surprised. She says, “I am recipient in the individual category but I could never have survived or even accomplished so much in the last year without my teammates in PHSA communications and at the BCCDC. I feel thankful but also feel like the recognition is to be shared.”
She also acknowledges how it has not only been her colleagues who have helped her make it through. Her partner has supported her fully and she is grateful for that.
Looking beyond the horizon
Until April 2021, Heather was the only communications representative working on behalf of the BCCDC. Now that she has some extra support, she is looking forward to what she has missed over the past 18 months outside of the office.
Heather enjoys camping, hiking, backpacking, and last fall spontaneously purchased a sea kayak! She is excited to go on trips with it this summer and hopes to take her first true break from work in August.
Looking ahead, Heather says, “The BCCDC is not the same program it was when the pandemic started. The prominence we have now established presents us with a huge opportunity to promote public health, the prevention and health services we offer and reduce inequities. I see communications playing a big role in trying to develop that. I’ve been thinking a lot about how we can pivot from being known as the source of truth in an emergency to a partner with the public for their health and safety every day.”
Whatever lies ahead, it is clear that Heather has played a pivotal role at the BCCDC and has become a respected leader among many.
The PHSA+ Awards are part of an internal recognition program that celebrates teams and individuals who bring our PHSA values to life in the workplace. They go above and beyond to serve patients and families across B.C. Read about the other PHSA+ award recipients for 2021.