Dr. Melody Wilkinson, in gloves and mask, provides information to a driver in a car.
News Story

On Academic Leave with CDC Foundation, GU Nursing Professor Helps Lead COVID Response in West Virginia

May 10, 2021 – As a part of the school’s National Nurses Week 2021 conversation series, Dr. Melody Wilkinson took the time at a virtual event last week to share her experiences helping lead the COVID-19 response in West Virginia.

Wilkinson, an associate professor who previously led the Family Nurse Practitioner Program, is on academic leave to serve, through the CDC Foundation, as director of strategic operations and preparedness for the Governor’s Joint Interagency Task Force – COVID 19 Vaccine (JIATF).

Originally from West Virginia, Wilkinson has led a community-based experiential learning opportunity for Georgetown students in the state. She began her presentation May 7 by discussing some of the state’s poorer health outcomes. “West Virginia ranks worst in the nation for life expectancy,” Wilkinson described. 

“We are a state that has some of the most significant health disparities and poorest health outcomes,” she said. “And yet during periods of this response, we’re the most successful in leading the nation in vaccine administration.”

The CDC Foundation

Last year, Wilkinson found the position description at the CDC Foundation, which was seeking a physician. After speaking with her department chair, Dr. Mary Haras, Wilkinson – who holds the doctor of nursing practice (DNP) degree – decided to apply in order to use her expertise to address the pandemic.

“We had a number of conversations,” she recalled. “I told her one day, in an ideal world, I would go help implement health systems programs that would improve lives and health in West Virginia – big picture thinking years from now.”   

Dr. Melody Wilkinson in a mask and clinical attire writes on a document while sitting at a table.
Dr. Melody Wilkinson during her work in West Virginia

At first, Wilkinson was placed with the state’s Department of Health and Human Resources. She began working on surveillance systems and learned about the operation of the state’s public health structure and federal reporting requirements. 

Over time, she has developed a strategic plan and learning modules related to case investigation and contact tracing, organized human resource processes to recruit epidemiologists, and participated in grant writing, including a current proposal on health equity and COVID. 

Wilkinson was also asked to help create and implement the vaccine distribution process through JIATF.

A colleague “called me on that Friday and said, ‘We need to be there Monday. I know you haven’t been involved in vaccines. You’ve been doing this other work, but we need someone who can help identify problems in real time and who can help propose solutions in a real time,’” said Wilkinson.

The Power of Nursing

Additionally, Wilkinson participated in a virtual meeting hosted by the Embassy of Peru to share best practices, including a three-hour briefing with Prime Minister Violeta Bermúdez Valdivia, the health minister, and senior military leaders.

Most of the questions were related to health care, so Wilkinson found herself, as the only health professional in the room, helping lead the briefing.

Upon reflecting, Wilkinson said she thought “about the power and the role of nursing, not only within this response, not only within a state, but having a voice, not only nationally, but internationally.”

Her years of preparation – from her baccalaureate to the DNP and working with a “strong group of nurses” to run the online FNP Program – provided the foundation she needed to contribute to the pandemic response. 

“For me, it was a moment of really thinking about the voice of nursing and as nurses where we can, should, and do sit in response to addressing health care across the country,” Wilkinson said.

(The National Nurses Week 2021 conversation series, organized by Georgetown’s nursing leaders Dr. Ladan Eshkevari, Dr. Mary Haras, and Dr. Edilma Yearwood, also featured a discussion with Congresswoman Lauren Underwood and will include a discussion with Dr. Shannon Zenk, director of the National Institute of Nursing Research on May 12 at 12 PM ET.)

By Bill Cessato

Health Equity
Nurses Week 2021