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'District’s Doctor' reflects on the health of the city and service during COVID

After seven and half years of leading DC Health, Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt is preparing to leave her government position.

WASHINGTON — For nearly a decade, Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt has carried the weight of this city’s health on her shoulders.

The “District’s Doctor” said she sought to treat the citizens here like the patients she once saw one-on-one.

Nesbitt steps down as Health Director next week - so she sat down with WUSA9's Lesli Foster to talk about her time in office during D.C.’s most pressing public health crisis. 

The pair met in the room where city leaders flocked when something called COVID became part of daily life. In this space, the crucial and life-saving messages about how everyone would have to change were shaped and shared.

“I’m sitting at the table and everyone turns to look at me and said, ‘what are we going to do? What is it we should expect?' And there was so much of the science that was evolving in the early days, and we needed to be quick,” Nesbitt said as she reflects back on that time. 

Nesbitt led a team charged with educating a nervous and anxious city about a virus that was about to upend how we lived, worked and gathered. Schools and businesses closed. Employees were sent home to work. And, many people on the front lines were exposed to an unseen adversary with little protection. 

The seasoned physician had already dealt with Ebola, H1N1 and Zika in her many years of public health. She knew the playbook. But after months of following her own advice, she could feel the weight of those decisions.

“So we would have these discussions about 'don’t travel,'; the holidays are coming and keep small gatherings. And a lot of my family isn’t here. And that first Thanksgiving was really tough,” Nesbitt said. “It was really, really rough. And I absolutely sat on my couch and cried, that was hard for me.”

She knew that actions had consequences. But she also knew she couldn’t pull this city through an unprecedented crisis alone.

“People like to express their gratitude for my leadership during that time. And I’m very quick to say to them, 'thank you.' And I am extremely grateful to the District residents for doing their part.”

Vaccines also played a crucial role. Setting up those centers across the city and finding appointments early on was no easy task. Dr. Nesbitt said the logistics were often daunting and required deeper introspection and conversations around who should receive those limited resources first. 

“We’d often get approval of a vaccine - sometimes that happened on a Sunday. And then, these large shipments would be coming within 24 hours,” said Nesbitt. “You’re thinking about equity from the perspective of who’s going to be the most at risk of going into the hospital if they don’t get the dose of those vaccines.”

Long before COVID, Nesbitt set out to address the District’s disparity gaps.
She set up an office of health equity to improve outcomes in communities of color … work that takes time

“I’m extraordinarily proud of where you look at where the city has come in the last five to seven in terms of our HIV outcomes, in terms of our infant mortality outcomes,” Nesbitt said. 

She also helped to spearhead a maternal health summit to center the experiences of mothers - particularly mothers of color - and sees progress in birth rates, too, in the city. 

“We have the lowest infant mortality rate that this city has ever experienced, including among black babies,” she said.

As her days of service begin to wind down, Dr. Nesbitt is taking in the moments of gratitude she has for this city and her team. But she’s also receiving those moments from the community she’s served. 

One letter thanked Dr. Nesbitt and her team for all the actions they took during COVID to keep the city safe. 

“I wish you all the best on your future endeavors and thank you for keeping us safe all of these years…” the letter read in part; a note Dr. Nesbitt called "heartwarming."

Nesbitt has made a career out of staying cool under pressure - though most don’t know that her office stays at about 80 degrees .. even during hot summer days. She’s taken lots of handwritten notes to capture this moment in our collective history.

“The pandemic ones are at home with a lock and key for, maybe, a book…” she said.

She’s leaving her post just as another emerging disease is starting to leave a mark in the city: Monkeypox.

“We’ve already stood up clinics for this, we’ve already gotten people to pre-register for appointments, we’ve ready administered thousands, over 1,000 doses of vaccine to the highest risk groups,” said Nesbitt. 

It’s been a grueling couple of years for this public servant and family physician. So WUSA9's Lesli Foster knew she had to ask the one question on everyone’s mind: “Are you burned out too, Dr. Nesbitt?”

Dr. Nesbitt’s answer?

“I’m not leaving because I’m burned out. I just really am at a point in my professional journey where I think I am ready to serve the community and serve a population in a different way.”

Dr. Nesbitt said she hopes she can stay in D.C. to do that.

In the meantime, she’s looking forward to some downtime and said the first thing she plans to do after leaving office - is to spend some time with her family - with no interruptions after two very long years. 

   

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