Gov’t Eval TIG Week: Striving for Balance as the Crises Keep Coming: Working in Evaluation in Public Health in 2020 by Kathryn Lowerre

Photo of author Kathryn Lowerre
Author Kathryn Lowerre

My name is Kathryn Lowerre and I serve as the evaluation team lead in the Epidemiology and Response Division’s Overdose Prevention Program at the New Mexico Department of Health. 

At the end of March 2020, I became part of the health department’s COVID-19 response, first as a case investigator and more recently helping support a school transmission project. Colleagues in every area have taken on new or additional responsibilities, often with increased hours and stress levels. As a case investigator, I’ve spoken on the phone with many people experiencing the full range of COVID-19 symptoms and challenges, plus a few who refused to answer questions from anyone working for the government. 

Working in public health as part of a state agency, we continue to rely on funding and resources provided by the federal government. Support through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention contributes significantly across multiple program areas. 

Rad Resources for COVID-19 Evaluation

Through the spring and summer, demands for social justice took on new urgency. In New Mexico, protests associated with Black Lives Matter often reflected the multi-layered histories of colonialism here. Over a century ago there was resistance to admitting New Mexico into the United States, due to its large Hispanic and Native American populations.

In June, Patrisse Cullors clearly stated that BLM is “talking about more than police brutality. We’re talking about incarceration, health care, housing, education, and economics — all the different components of a broader system”. Our governor declared racism a public health emergency and appointed a Council for Racial Justice.  

When working within the system, we are challenged to ask hard questions of ourselves and others about responsibility and integrity, and to acknowledge imperfect or failed efforts to act equitably and build trust, even with institutional supports in place (e.g. NMDOH’s Office of Health Equity). The sectors cited by Cullors are ones overdose prevention and harm reduction efforts have increasingly focused on, to build bridges between public health and public safety, provide social support services while enhancing access to treatment, and save lives.

As 2020 progressed, we knew that deaths due to drug overdoses were rising again across the U.S. This increase predates the COVID-19 pandemic, but intersects with it in alarming ways. For every positive shift, such as the government loosening restrictions on prescribing Medication Assisted Treatment for people with opioid use disorder, more people are losing social and economic connections that helped them maintain their recovery.

As evaluators, we are asked to document and account for the effect COVID is having on our programs. We search for the collective clarity to make policy and program recommendations, under extraordinary circumstances. 

Finally, 2021 has already produced additional crises of its own, to throw everyone—whether in or outside of government—off balance further. I am grateful for the ability to keep doing what I think I need to keep doing (most of the time) together with my colleagues in public health and for the privilege and perspectives that have come through my work in evaluation. 

The American Evaluation Association is hosting Gov’t Eval TIG Week with our colleagues in the Government Evaluation Topical Interest Group. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from our Gov’t Eval TIG members. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

3 thoughts on “Gov’t Eval TIG Week: Striving for Balance as the Crises Keep Coming: Working in Evaluation in Public Health in 2020 by Kathryn Lowerre”

  1. Hello Kathryn,
    Thank you for all of the hard work that you and your colleagues have had to take on due to the pandemic. It has definitely changed everyone’s lives in, every single way, as we know it.

  2. Hello Ms. Lowerre,

    I am a primary teacher and graduate student at Queen’s University in Canada. I am finishing a course in Program Inquiry and Evaluation, and I have the task of connecting with the evaluation community. I was drawn to your article as I lost a loved one to an accidental overdose two years ago.

    Thank you for your article on striving for balance while working in public health evaluation during 2020. It was sad and disturbing to read the article you linked to regarding overdose deaths increasing during Covid-19. As someone who evaluates an overdose prevention program, I wonder what your personal and professional thoughts are on the response to the pandemic and its effects on those with substance use disorder.

    In Canada, mental health and addiction supports were lacking before the pandemic. Like many other areas, it seems that the pandemic has accentuated weaknesses in our social structure. Personally, I know of public health workers being diverted to the pandemic response. While this is much needed, it creates a void in their respective areas. For example, some pharmacists have become contact tracers and porters at testing sites. These pharmacists would normally be working with the provincial health authority and consulting with the elderly or those with substance use disorders.

    There is indeed an urgent need to divert public health resources due to the pandemic. However, I wonder if we are trading the lives of those with mental health disorders with those of the immunocompromised and the elderly? Would the rise in overdose deaths be the same with or without the pandemic? Is there a way to evaluate the public health response to the pandemic in regards to its effect on societies’ most forgotten and socioeconomically vulnerable populations? If so, is there even a point in doing so if there’s no possibility of effecting change when faced with the next public health emergency (due to lack of funding, politics, etc.)?

    Thank you for your article and the work you continue to do.


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