Keeping Us Healthy, Safe and Informed: Meet Katia Harb

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In March 2020, UW became the first university in the country to move to fully remote classes, in an effort to stem the burgeoning tide of what were the first reported cases of coronavirus (COVID-19) infection in the U.S.

It was an unprecedented decision, followed in short order by other universities across the country.

Eighteen months later, UW was one of the last U.S. universities to return to in-person instruction, and that instruction was moved back online in early 2022 with the spread of the Omicron variant.

Those significant choices, made with the well-being, safety and productivity of the entire UW community in mind, were informed, in part, by the expertise of staff at UW Environmental Health & Safety (EH&S), led by senior director Katia Harb.

Katia’s work is guided by EH&S Medical Director Dr. Geoff Gottlieb, Chair of the UW Advisory Committee on Communicable Diseases (ACCD), additional ACCD committee members, and many others in the UW community who have been directly involved with responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It was like a firehose was turned on us, constantly, seven days a week.”

During that uncertain and tumultuous time in early 2020, marred by fear and loss, and charged with a mission to protect the health of UW students, staff and faculty, Katia and her team got to work. And every day since then, her work has comprised a remarkable degree of collaboration, organization and solidarity in pursuit of that mission.

“As a result of Katia’s efforts,” wrote Hilary Godwin, Dean of the School of Public Health, “UW has remained healthy and strong and has weathered the storm of COVID better than any other academic institution that I am aware of.”

Stay healthy, Huskies

Environmental Health & Safety (EH&S) is the UW department responsible for helping to keep everyone in the UW community – staff, faculty and academic personnel, students, researchers – healthy, safe, and informed.

Pre-pandemic, EH&S staff kept us safe in scores of ways: conducting safety surveys, monitoring food recalls (toss that JIF peanut butter!), managing hazardous waste, conducting health and safety inspections of our research labs, scheduling regular fire drills at campus buildings, preventing heat-related illness for outdoor workers, overseeing SCUBA diving safety, tracking work-related injuries and observing trends in infectious diseases, among other things.

Other things such as responding to a major radiological material release in one of our research buildings that required a two year closure and remediation of the building.

Since March 2020, however, Katia and her team have spent a substantial amount of time managing the institutional response to COVID: generating guidance and policies for a staggering number of campus facilities, programs and circumstances: workspaces, residence halls, public gathering spaces, research labs, eating areas and food establishments, public transport, university-sponsored travel, and so on.

“It was like a firehose was turned on us, constantly, seven days a week,” Katia said of the early months of the pandemic. “We received hundreds of inquiries a day. It was nonstop.”

For Katia and many others in the weeds of UW’s pandemic response, the long hours took their toll. Birthdays were missed, vacations – when taken- were working vacations, and self-care went out the window. A practitioner of hot yoga, Katia stopped attending in person classes and has only recently returned, albeit in a KN95 mask that makes the experience that much hotter.

A consummate collaborator

Katia was involved in the implementation of the university’s Husky Coronavirus Testing Program, is a member of both the UW COVID incident command team and the UW advisory committee on communicable diseases – which met daily during the early weeks of the pandemic – and partners with various institutional and civic leaders to coordinate public health guidance provided to the campus community.

Leading the EH&S teams tasked with implementing campus-wide protocols such as cleaning, masking and personal protective equipment, testing, isolation and quarantine, and working safely on-campus was no small task – particularly when EH&S was responding simultaneously to emergent situations, such as the COVID outbreak on Greek row in October 2020 – as well as non-COVID environmental health and safety concerns.

Unsurprisingly, Katia was awarded the 2021 David B. Thorud Leadership Award (she’s pictured above at the award ceremony with President Ana Mari Cauce and Provost Mark Richards), the University’s highest leadership honor for faculty and staff, for her role in helping to lead UW’s tri-campus Covid safety response.

Her colleagues are quick to emphasize Katia’s collaborative spirit, a fundamental facet of her leadership style and essential to her success in handling UW’s institutional response to the pandemic so successfully.

“Despite her wealth of expertise, Katia is always receptive to input, patient with questions from other stakeholders and eager to take into account their perspectives when making decisions and crafting guidance,” wrote Dean Godwin in her nomination of Katia for the award.

Godwin continued, “Throughout the pandemic, Katia has shown true, consultative and engaged leadership, to the great benefit of our community.”

Advocating for students

Katia is committed to providing a safe and high-quality Husky experience for every student. Indeed, taking students’ needs into consideration has always been a priority, particularly during the early weeks of the pandemic when institutions began closing student housing.

What would happen to students who had nowhere to go?

As doors closed, University leadership asked: What would happen to students who had nowhere to go? How could we keep them safe and support their learning? Particularly for international students, and those who were far from home – or had no home to go back to – the best course of action was to keep them safe right where they were.

“The University was able to maintain students in the dorms safely throughout the pandemic,” Katia said. “Our student housing leaders developed COVID protocols in coordination with EH&S and our local health departments with confidence that they would limit the spread of illness and provide support for students through their recovery, which would allow them to focus on their studies.”

Despite outstanding preventative measures, students did and still do test positive for COVID. When that happens, student housing staff, in coordination with EH&S, assist with moving the students to designated isolation or quarantine locations, and provide support with food and daily needs.

Katia also champions opportunities for students to gain real-world experience in pandemic response. Graduate students from the UW School of Public Health Student Epidemic Action Leaders (SEAL) Team, led by Dr. Janet Baseman, partnered early on with EH&S to employ their training in applied epidemiology: answering calls, responding to emails, conducting contact tracing for positive cases on campus, and helping with data management and surveillance.

“The SEAL team brings high standards of public health emergency response training including epidemiology, a calm demeanor, strong listening skills and a nonjudgmental communication style to their work,” Katia said. “These students are going to make such a positive difference in the world.”

We live with COVID now

Katia joins other UW experts and public health officials in their optimism about moving forward with COVID.

While there is still much to learn concerning COVID, we know exponentially more now than we did two years ago about how to limit spread and reduce the potential for severe illness. We have a toolkit with layers of protection – vaccines, high quality masks, testing, staying home and isolating when we are sick – with which to protect ourselves and our communities.

“I feel very confident in the levels of protection in place to mitigate the impacts of the virus,” she said. “By implementing precautions, we can all start to return to our everyday lives… we live with COVID now.”

For Katia, that means time spent connecting and reconnecting with family and friends, reinvigorating her yoga practice, skiing more, taking a real vacation, and enjoying the journey of parenting two teenagers.

Raised in Cleveland, she loves the Pacific Northwest: all the cultural and recreational opportunities, the diversity and especially the emphasis on public health and helping others. “There’s something here for everyone,” she said.

She does enjoy the warm months of summer and can envision a day when she and her husband, an aerospace engineer, become snowbirds – maybe Miami, or perhaps San Diego.

And she hasn’t ruled out going back to school. A two-degree Husky – she earned both her BS and her MS from the department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences in the UW School of Public Health – Katia is considering pursuing a doctorate in public health leadership.

For now, though, she is happy to be on the other side of the pandemic and able to devote more time to mentoring, keeping current on best practices in environmental health and supporting a culture of professional and personal development among her staff.

One of the best things about Katia’s job? “Engaging and collaborating with our university community to prevent illness and injury. We are always learning and continually finding new and creative ways to evaluate risk and to implement measures to prevent illness and injuries in our many university settings,” she said.

The goal of EH&S is to help facilitate safe and healthy operations – whether it is lifesaving biomedical research, healthcare, construction and maintenance, teaching, or food service.

“Helping people understand, prioritize and value safety as part of their day-to-day work and habits is very rewarding,” Katia said. “I love it when members of our campus departments come to us and ask for assistance with safety measures to support their operations and activities.”

Snowbird lifestyle notwithstanding, she appreciates UW’s collaborative workplace culture and the high value leadership places on health, safety, and environmental protection. “There is so much support for the EH&S mission of protecting people and our environment,” she said.

“In the UW community, people really care about one another.”