When Jessica Chenette graduated from Castleton in 2003 with a Bachelor’s degree in Environmental Science, she never expected to be a necessary frontline worker in a global pandemic.
In 2009, she joined the Vermont Department of Health Laboratory (VDHL) in Colchester as a Public Health Microbiologist, after taking additional college courses at CCV and UVM. In her role, Chenette functions as the lab’s Biothreat Coordinator, testing both clinical and environmental samples for the microscopic presence of threats.
During a regular workweek she can be found working on molecular surveillance testing for Influenza, Norovirus, Bordetella pertussis, Zika, Dengue, West Nile Virus, Eastern Equine Encephalitis, or Ebola Virus. When needed, she also conducts rabies testing on animals and water bacteriology in drinking water supplies. But most recently, with the appearance of the 2019 Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19), Chenette finds herself on the front lines in search of Vermont’s positive disease cases.
“Our lab is currently the only lab in the state who can perform testing for SARS-CoV-2,” Chenette said, adding that the facility produces lab results within 24 hours of receipt. “With bringing on the COVID-19 testing, we had to stop or limit testing in our other test areas so we could focus our time primarily on the response.”
While navigating the ever-evolving pandemic safety guidelines, in addition to the lab’s standard safety gear of gloves and disposable gowns, employees also now utilize face shields, doubled gloves, and N95 respirators daily. As cases increased and more Vermonters with symptoms of the illness began to come forward throughout the state, Chenette’s lab ramped up to maximum capacity for testing to meet the demand.
“Early on it was crazy, we were testing long days and went weeks without a day off,” she said. “We are still testing seven days a week but have since brought on higher throughput assays, which have allowed us to work in smaller teams while practicing social distancing. We are also working with the University of Vermont Medical Center to triage specimens. Lower priority specimens have been sent to commercial labs out of state while VDHL tests higher priority specimens.”
Chenette has advice for the 2020 Castleton graduates, who are entering a job market made difficult by the virus.
“Be willing to adapt to change and be open to other career opportunities. While attending Castleton, I never could have imagined I would be where I am today.”