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Helping the country heal: Keeping workers safe

Editor's note. Corey Butler, a 1998 Lincoln High graduate, grew up in Lincoln and is the daughter of Mike and Renee Campbell. The following appeared in Montana Tech's MNews Chancellors Edition published earlier this year. Re-printed with permission

During this complex and challenging time, Montana Tech's Vice Chancellor for Advancement and Alumni Engagement, Joe McClafferty, recently spent some time with Lieutenant Commander Corey Butler (Campbell).

Lt. Cdr. Butler is a U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps Officer assigned to the National Institute for occupational Safety and Health with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Corey started with the CDC through a fellowships in 2007 and was commissioned as an Officer in the USPHS in 2012. Corey is currently the Program Manager for the Wildland Fire Research Program at NIOSH where she is responsible for overseeing research designed to understand better exposures and health effects associated with wildland fire. Corey graduated from Montana Tech in 2002 with a degree in Occupational Safety and Health/Applied Health Science and was also a member of the Oredigger Women's Basketball team.

During the COVID-19 response, Corey has been involved in various public health activities, from boots n the ground fieldwork to analyzing data and developing national-level guidance. This includes screening passengers in airports as they arrived from European countries in the U.S., developing and partnering with wildland fire agencies to develop national infection control and prevention guidelines as they prepare for the wildland fire season, conducting occupational epidemiology to understand better how COVID-19 impacts certain occupations, and writing guidance on how workplaces can partner with State and local public health officials as case investigation and contact tracing is conducted in the workplace.

Lt. Cdr. Butler is focused on solving the COVID challenge.

First off, we understand you have a personal battle with COVID-how are you doing?Yes, I, unfortunately, was diagnosed with COVID-19. I am doing well. My primary symptoms were complete loss of taste and smell, followed by very minor respiratory symptoms (minor cough and sore throat). Most of the symptoms have resolved, although my ability to smell and taste is still limited.

How did the fact that you actually were battling the virus yourself affect your thought process on battling the virus in your daily job?

I think if anything, it just brings it closer to home. As a front-line public health working, we often see how COVID-19 or other illnesses and injuries impact people. My primary job it NIOSH is conducting research to understand what emergency response workers are exposed to, how these exposures impact their health, and then use this information to do more research or develop ways to prevent these exposures and protect the health of this important workforce. Being deployed for COVID-19 really is not too much different. I was and still am tasked with applying the latest science-based principles to identify illness and prevent further spread of it. For me as soon as I had that aha moment, when I could not smell freshly ground coffee, I started thinking what I needed to do to stop the spread of the virus immediately. This included self-isolating, reporting my symptoms to my employer, and receiving and following appropriate medical guidance. I was deployed so I could no longer participate in my original response role, but I could continue to support response activities remotely. It is interesting to be a confirmed case during a pandemic, and I was really curious about the science of what was happening to me and why. 

Like so many other Orediggers, you grew up in small-town Montana-how did a Lincoln Lynx get to Montana Tech?

It was always my dream to play basketball in college, and when Montanan Tech contacted me, and after I visited the campus, I knew it was where I was supposed to be.

Most of my mom's side of the family were and still are associated with Butte, and my grandfather was an Oredigger for a while, so it's a place near and dear to me.

What was your experience as a student-athlete for the Diggs?

When I wasn't injured, I had a wonderful experience as a student-athlete at Montana Tech. I must admit, it was Mike Mavros, our athletic trainer at the time, who persuaded me to think about the health effects of woodland firefighting. I fought fires in the summer, and Mike and I had many discussion sin the training room about how the physical and chemical hazards may not be great for one's health. Those discussions resonated, and have been the basis for some of the research questions we are trying to answer. As a student-athlete, I wore two different hats, one geared towards succeeding academically and athletically. Through this, I've learned the necessary skills to balance life as a mom, a scientist, project officer and a Commissioned Officer.

Why did you pick Occupational Safety and Health?

Another good question. I wanted to be a physician and was pointed towards OSH when arriving at Tech, but it turns out I pass out cold as soon as I see human blood. Once I learned the medical route wasn't going to work out, I continued the OSH/Applied Health degree as I enjoyed the coursework and the professors. One of the great things about Tech is the course requirements are multidisciplinary, and while I never thought some of the 'required courses' would come in handy, it turns out I apply principles from the OSH, Industrial Hygiene, Chemistry, Biology, Statistics, Scientific Writing, and Bioethics classes often.

What was your experience in the program here at Montana Tech?

I can't say enough about my experience in the program. The faculty and staff are incredible folks who helped foster my experience as a student and as an athlete. I still use many of the skills and principles I learned at Tech.

You have taken on many complex environmental health challenges in your career. What have you learned from you many learning opportunities?

Flexibility. In public health, you have to be flexible and apply the core public health principles and science to a variety of topics. My job at NIOSH has taken me all over the place, work on all sorts of different projects. Typically, I focus on worker safety and health due to smoke and other exposures in the wildfire environment. Now, in my most current deployment, I am focusing on how to protect workers during a pandemic.

What could the impacts of the virus be on the fire season?

That's a challenging questions as information about the virus and guidance on it are updated and change often. At this point, we are trying to use current guidance documents and science to develop guidance for the woodland fire community to protect their workforce best, while continuing to fight fires.

How did you end up in your current position?

I was lucky enough to be accepted into a fellowship at the CDC. When I arrived in Atlanta, I was assigned to NIOSH because of my background. I then continued in the occupational health and emergency preparedness realm and took a job with NIOSH when I completed the fellowship.

What are the main challenges to the COVID issue that you are working on?

This is a novel virus, and we learn many new things about it almost every single day. The most challenging piece is staying on top of all the research and developing or applying practical, but evidence-based recommendations in real-world situations, based on current science.

Currently your career has you working on a challenge that is affecting every person in the world. How does that affect you?

I am active duty, so I will deploy and respond wherever I am needed as often and as long as I am asked to go. It's an oath I took. It's an honor to be able to respond to protect, promote, and advance the health and safety of our Nation.

How do you apply your lessons from Montana Tech to solving the challenges in front of you?

Montana Tech taught me resilience and perseverance. To succeed at Tech, and to succeed at CDC, these two skillsets come in handy.

What drives you to get up every day and continue to battle?

I know the work we are doing makes a difference. I have so many amazing colleagues, and I work with some of the most skilled scientists and public health practitioners in the world. We are presented with a challenge, and we are working around the clock to contribute. It's an honor to do this.

Thank you, Corey. Please know how proud Montana Tech is of all your efforts to solve these incredibly complex challenges and thank you again for sharing your valuable time.


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