The face of Utah’s coronavirus fight: Angela Dunn’s life has prepared her for this critical moment

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Angela Dunn, state epidemiologist from the Utah Department of Health, on a walk with her family in the hills above Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 18, 2020. From left, Dunn, Owen Mendoza, Pierce Mendoza, and Alejandro Mendoza.

At a recent news conference, Angela Dunn, the state’s lead epidemiologist, was answering questions about the coronavirus in rapid fashion, knocking them down, one by one, using plain phraseology that required no advanced degree to grasp, but never lowered to the level of condescension.

Dunn was asked all the usuals — about numbers, about percentages, about infection rates, about hospitalizations, about curves, flattened and unflattened, about optimism, about pessimism, about lives saved and deaths counted.

Her responses were concise, but thorough.

It wasn’t that Dunn knew everything about the new virus still under heavy study by researchers and doctors, it’s that she was on top of everything that is known so far.

And that, somehow, was reassuring — that someone as capable as she is heading up Utah’s efforts to combat a disease that has punched the state, the country, the world with a combination of straight, hard jabs, staggering the physical, mental, emotional, financial health of people near and far.

It was Dunn who met the Utah Jazz upon their return from Oklahoma City on the fateful March day after Rudy Gobert tested positive for the virus, as did Donovan Mitchell.

“It was a crazy situation,” Dunn says. “Trying to get them a place to stay, trying to get them a flight home. We had a lot of issues to deal with. After they got back, I met them at the airport to talk to the team about COVID. I had their captive attention. They asked and I told them about their risk of exposure and how they could keep their families safe. We talked about how to maintain good quarantine health. They wanted to be safe, and they wanted to set a good example of good public health guidelines. Good guys; I can’t wait to see them play again.”

She informed the players and coaches, the same way she’s informed the rest of the state since.

Dunn has become Utah’s version of Anthony Fauci, the national expert who has become a celebrity for his no-nonsense talk, spurring people to make Fauci plush dolls and a campaign to name him People’s “Sexiest Man Alive.”

Dunn hasn’t received that level of fandom, but she has earned the praise of Utahns both in and out of state government.

“We’re lucky to have her,” says Mike Friedrichs, the head epidemiologist for chronic diseases in Utah. “We’re doing all the right things here, and the credit goes to Angela.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dr. Angela Dunn, state epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health, speaks during the daily COVID-19 media briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, April 8, 2020.

At the center of the fight

Doing “all the right things” is a relative characterization for the battle against a cruel pandemic, even in a state where the effects, while tragic in some cases, have not been as devastating as they have been in places such as New York.

Either way, Dunn is at the center of the fight, collecting and studying data, balancing what’s best for Utah’s general health with measures put into place by the state’s politicians, regularly and calmly dispensing information to reporters, advising officials.

Flinch, or hesitate, she does not, which isn’t what might be expected from a young doctor — she’s 38 years old — staring straight into the teeth of the biggest challenge Utah, as well as the rest of the country, has faced in decades. Maybe ever.

But it’s no more frightening than kneeling on the dirt in heavy medical gear under the buzzard-hot African sun, looking into the eyes of a traumatized child suffering the effects of Ebola, in an isolated village, five hours’ drive from the nearest bamboo-walled airport.

Dunn did that, too.

She profoundly remembers her time in that poor village in Sierra Leone as a part of a team of physicians trying to limit the spread of that deadly disease. Dunn lived alone in a small, unpolished hotel room, reporting directly to the field to perform her daily duties, and then back. Like the other doctors, she always wore long-sleeved shirts and long pants to protect her.

On one occasion, Dunn had her pants rolled up to her knees, as she was hiking along a path, and before she rolled them back down, a young boy came up behind her and touched her leg. She was shocked and a little shaken.

“Nobody had touched my skin for weeks,” she says. “It is strange that the human touch could feel so threatening.”

So Dunn knows a few things about medical monsters, working in and around them in dangerous conditions, living in isolation. Quarantining? Try sleeping and existing in what amounted to a mud hut for two months in a far-off place called Tonkolili.

It’s become a theme of her life to seek out those kinds of cliffs to climb and to help as many people as she can up and over them, especially those who don’t have the fortune to come from a part of society that affords them the best medical care.

A coast-to-coast apprenticeship

Her road to Utah was circuitous, literally and figuratively, and unexpected. Where she is, though, is where she’ll be. “Angela wants to make the world a better place,” says her colleague, Friedrichs. Her world now is the Beehive State, protecting it from a menacing virus.

Dunn was born in Texas and went to high school there, but she doesn’t consider herself a daughter of the state: “I’m not a Texan,” she says. “I’m a nomad.”

Her father, Neil, was in the oil business, moving his family from place to place, teaching Dunn a lesson, a skill, she uses to this day. Adaptability.

“By the time I was 7, I had lived in nine different houses,” she says. “I had to learn to make friends quickly. I was constantly having to meet new people. That influenced my personality.”

Another major influence that sharpened Dunn’s focus was her mother, Michele, a nurse who made an emphasis of providing health care largely for the poorer population where she worked.

“She cared for the less fortunate,” Dunn says.

The Dunns were not less fortunate. They were affluent. And they knew it, to the extent that Neil and Michele did whatever they could to ground the family in real world issues that deserved respect and needed attention.

Angela Dunn had that firmly in mind when she attended Brown University, where she earned an undergraduate degree in international relations, with an emphasis on political economy and development in 2003. She also was the captain of Brown’s intercollegiate volleyball team, playing a role that suits her professionally now — she was a blocker, stymying opponents’ attacks.

“That was my strength,” she says. “I was a hard worker. And I had the ability to bring everyone together. That resonates with everything I do now.”

Dunn earned her medical degree at the University of Miami, where she worked at a nearby hospital that was open to patients who otherwise wouldn’t get the treatment they needed.

“That hospital didn’t turn anyone away,” she says. “They treated a lot of people there that the system had failed. I saw people die of things that had they been somewhere else in society, they would have survived.”

After med school, Dunn interned and continued her clinical training as an OB-GYN in San Diego and Los Angeles, where she treated many refugees and other at-risk groups. During that time, she witnessed enough of the health care process to see shortcomings, holes that needed filling that she felt powerless to change on the ground level, “running,” as she says it, “from place to place.”

She redirected her emphasis to preventive medicine, studying all the sectors of public health, and staying on the beat of her own drum: “It was my job to give voice to people who didn’t have one.”

She started a fellowship with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which led to her stint in Sierra Leone. “If you’re going into public health and there is an Ebola outbreak,” she says, “any epidemiologist would want to work on that at the height of the epidemic.”

The hot spot is where Dunn wanted to be.

“Angela is passionate about public health,” says Alejandro Mendoza, Dunn’s husband of 13 years. “Her job is important to her.”

He would know.

She left him, and their 2-year-old son, behind in San Diego, for training in Atlanta and then on to Africa, where she organized everything from treatment plans to ambulance service to alterations in cultural norms, which included burying the dead in clothes that were contaminated with Ebola, further transmitting the disease to those who came in contact with them.

She remembers the ever-present smell of chlorine and every aspect to the scramble to fight the devastating beast, seeing pictures in her mind of the people so severely affected by it.

Like in the fight against COVID-19 here, even as Dunn asks Utahns to isolate themselves, she understands that “not everyone has the same resources to stay at home for two weeks.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dr. Rich Bullough, executive director of the Summit County Health Department speaks with Dr. Angela Dunn, state epidemiologist from the Utah Department of Health following a news conference to Saturday, March 14, 2020, to announce a new case of COVID-19 in Summit County that is the first instance of community spread of the virus in Utah.

Sweet home SLC

After Africa, the CDC gave Dunn a choice between moving to Atlanta or Salt Lake City where she could continue her public health career, and while she and Alejandro, a civil engineer from Miami, had no frame of reference for Utah, never having visited, they came here anyway in 2014. It didn’t hurt that his company happened to have an office in Salt Lake City.

And they fell in love.

She now appreciates the mountains in a way she hadn’t previously. She runs trails on the reg, runs marathons and competes in triathlons. She’s also taken up skiing.

Dunn may be a nomad, but she’s found a sweet home in Salt Lake City.

In particular, she seems to have glommed onto the people she works with and gets along with almost everyone, but not by ignoring statistical data and failing to embrace the truth.

“She’s a Type A personality,” Alejandro says, with a kind of no-duh tone. “She’s always looking for facts, for scientific evidence for everything. She challenges the status quo. She wants to help people.”

Dunn worked as an epidemiologist for the CDC and the Utah Department of Health, then as the state’s deputy epidemiologist and, finally, she ascended in January 2018 to state epidemiologist, where she has headed the resistance against numerous health threats, from suicide to hepatitis C.

And now, the novel coronavirus.

Dunn is the face of the fight in Utah, mostly because of her presence at daily briefings. Articulate and smooth and candid, she says that’s another lesson she learned from her strict father, who insisted that she look people in the eye when addressing them and to avoid sloppy language as a kid. He impressed upon her the need to answer the telephone all prim and proper.

It was always: “Dunn residence, Angela speaking.”

So she presents information to the crowd here and answers questions.

“Angela works hard and handles things with integrity and grace,” says Friedrichs, who has worked for the Utah Department of Health for 30 years. “She has a vision.”

There is no better place to be, Dunn says, during the COVID-19 outbreak than Utah. The state has lower numbers of hospitalizations and deaths than many other states, and, she says, the coordinated effort here is the envy of other regions.

“It’s a combination of the people trying to do the right things, the public-health infrastructure being so strong, people being resilient, and everyone having the right intentions,” she says.

And while the lead physician likes to be optimistic, she also says she has a “healthy sense of paranoia.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Angela Dunn, state epidemiologist from the Utah Department of Health, on a walk with her family in the hills above Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 18, 2020. From left, Pierce Mendoza, Dunn, and Owen Mendoza.

Be hopeful, but don’t let your guard down

Dunn says there are reasons for hope, but that there also “is talk that this might be seasonal,” which is to say, if the numbers tick down over the summer months, they could rise back up come the colder weather in the fall.

“We are preparing for a second wave,” she says. “This might not be over in June.”

And she believes, like a lot of other experts, that a vaccine will take the better part of a year to have ready.

Dunn is aware that the balance between health and the economy is delicate, and she along with other officials are working to bump-start that economy, “having things go on in society in a safer way.”

Her own family, now expanded with Alejandro and two boys, ages 2 and 8, is affected by all of this, too. Her view is expansive enough to include them, and 3 million of her Utah brothers and sisters.

This is what she wants us all to know.

“We want to find a way to do and enjoy the things we have and love to do without spreading COVID …”

She hesitates.

“… It will take time. But we’re going to get through this.”