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Carlton County public health nurse recognized for pandemic efforts

Jenny Barta, a public health nurse and disease prevention and control coordinator for Carlton County, was given AFSCME's "Never Quit" service award to recognize her work during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jenny Barta at a vaccination drive-thru clinic
Carlton County Public Health nurse specialist Jenny Barta at a drive-thru COVID-19 vaccine clinic in December 2020.
Contributed / AFSCME
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CLOQUET — Jenny Barta, a Carlton County public health nurse specialist, has received the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees' "Never Quit" service award to recognize her efforts during the coronavirus pandemic. The award is presented to AFSCME members nominated by their peers.

“I was so honored to be a part of this work in helping our community to stay safe during the pandemic,” Barta said. “I was pretty shocked, surprised, amazed and humbled that I would even be considered for this award. It was such an amazing group effort, with regards to the pandemic response. I’m just so honored to be able to receive this.”

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Carlton County public health nurse specialist Jenny Barta, right, administers a first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine to Mary Dandrea on March 5, 2021, at Community Memorial Hospital in Cloquet.
Tyler Schank / File / Duluth News Tribune

Barta, a member of AFSCME Council 65, was nominated for the award by her coworker Tom Shay, an IT coordinator for the county. They have worked together extensively over the course of the county's vaccination clinics, which used iPads and other computer systems for registration and records. Barta is also the county's disease prevention and control coordinator.

The Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa received its first allotment of the vaccine Wednesday. It included 700 doses of Moderna vaccine.

Barta and the Carlton County Public Health team were among the first in the U.S. to arrange local drive-thru vaccination clinics in the county's garage to protect people from the wintry weather, plus avoid exposure to the virus.

The first clinic was held in December 2020, when the COVID-19 vaccine was first authorized for emergency use. The county's emergency preparedness team tested the drive-thru vaccination idea the summer before with child immunizations and flu shots. Their work was featured in national news articles by the Associated Press and Time magazine.

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Public health nurse Jenny Barta listens as Ali Mueller, Carlton County’s emergency preparedness coordinator, talks about the drive-thru clinic Dec. 29, 2020.
Steve Kuchera / File / Duluth News Tribune

“When vaccines rolled out, being able to administer vaccines in a short amount of time to a large number of people and to do it safely is part of my core values as a nurse, to protect our community at large," Barta said. “Because this was a coronavirus pandemic and no one really had it on our radar that we would have a global pandemic from a coronavirus, it was very novel and something really new. We didn’t have a step-by-step playbook so we needed to rely on state sources, federal sources and learning from the science as things progressed throughout the pandemic."

The drive-thru event was only for about 100 emergency workers, but served as a practice run for larger events to come.

As the vaccine became more readily available and approved for more groups of people, the county held vaccination clinics about one to three times a week over the next six months, Barta said, coordinating frequently with the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and local schools.

“No one ever wants to go through such a challenging global pandemic like this, but one of the silver linings is that the community partnerships that we had developed in public health were strengthened, I believe, throughout this pandemic response,” Barta said.

She said much of the work done by public health departments is more behind-the-scenes, such as pushing to pass legislature ensuring the community has safe drinking water and air quality. But regardless of the publicity of the work, she said public health specialists are looked to as experts for the community to rely on for their safety.

“Jenny keeps going day after day, week after week, month after month,” said Dave Lee, director of the Carlton County Public Health Department. “She is very much driven by: she’s got a job to do, she’s got people to serve. She wants people to be healthy and safe and vaccinated and have all the tools that they need to keep themselves, their family and their community safe and healthy.”

Jenny Barta
Jenny Barta, Carlton County Public Health nurse specialist and disease control and prevention coordinator.
Contributed / AFSCME

Barta said she is grateful to her husband and children, who were understanding in her need to spend a large portion of her time away from them while working on pandemic responses. In addition, she credits her parents for teaching her to take care of her neighbors and supporting her in her calling to become a nurse.

Barta was born and raised in Duluth and attended nursing school at the College of St. Scholastica. She and her family now live in Carlton County.

“Especially as a nurse working in public health, my job and responsibility is to protect the community at large," Barta said. "This is my home community, so it meant so much to be a part of this effort and response in this Northland that I love so much.”

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Joanne Erspamer, a public health supervisor, said Barta's investment to the people of Carlton County has helped her become a trusted face for the public health department to communicate with the community.

Roughly 667,000 Minnesotans could receive the checks if they apply. And the state expected to start sending them out beginning in September.

"She really has become that trusted messenger," Joanne Erspamer, a public health supervisor, said. "I really believe it’s because she does really take the time, both personally and professionally, to get to know the community, and that shows in all the things that she does."

Every month, AFSCME honors one or two of the 1.4 million public service workers in the union with the "Never Quit" award. AFSCME receives hundreds of nominations and chooses individuals who have a profound impact on their community. Members who win the award receive a Never Quit Service Award Certificate, online recognition and a letter of congratulations from AFSCME leadership signed by the union's president Lee Saunders.

Barta credits her co-workers in Carlton County for their support of everyone on the team, and said their ability to work so well together is what has kept her in the job for the last 15 years.

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Laura Butterbrodt covers health for the Duluth News Tribune. She has a bachelor of arts in journalism from South Dakota State University and has been working as a reporter in Minnesota and South Dakota since 2014.
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