Since she was 11, Dr. Allison Berry Unthank knew she was meant to help people.
Building an empathy for people in childhood and helping care for her grandmother drove that passion. Unthank said she realized she wanted to ensure “people receive good care for their lives” following her grandmother’s passing.
The 30-something considered medical research for a career, but as she became more involved another concept dawned on her: No matter how good the invention, it didn’t matter if it didn’t get out to the people.
“Primary care was the most direct service I could do,” she said.
This September marks two years serving as the Clallam County Public Health Officer after starting as a family physician at Jamestown Family Health Clinic in 2016.
Much like the national media’s attention on Dr. Anthony Fauci, Unthank has come under the local microscope for helping Clallam County minimize the impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic, from Neah Bay to Sequim.
That follows previous efforts of helping fight flu outbreaks and the opioid epidemic in the county.
Colleagues and peers express she continues to do an outstanding job.
“She’s bright, energetic, and she’s been working seven days a week,” said Dr. Scott Kennedy, Olympic Medical Center’s chief medical officer.
“She’ll answer a call even if it interrupts her weekend. That makes all the difference.”
Tori Reid, Clallam County’s public health support specialist, said she liked working with Unthank so much as her medical assistant at Jamestown’s clinic that followed her to a county job.
“I love working with her; I love the way she talks with patients,” Reid said. “She truly takes time to understand their situation, and make sure they get thorough healthcare … (and) she tries to get to the root of their problem.”
Growing up in Tacoma, Unthank’s parents worked as physical therapists. Her older brother became a firefighter and her younger brother now works in finance.
At Lawrence University in Wisconsin, Unthank double majored in music playing the french horn and biochemistry. She later graduated from Johns Hopkins University with a medical doctorate and masters degree in public health in epidemiology and biostatistics. She completed residency in family medicine at the University of Washington.
While in Baltimore for medical school and working with a health commissioner — called a health officer here — handling poverty-driven health issues, Unthank said it helped her realize that the position “could make a lot of difference in a community.”
Upon taking Clallam’s public health officer position, she split her time between the county and primary care at Jamestown, focusing on infectious diseases and the opioid epidemic.
“With Covid, things dramatically changed,” she said. “It’s been our focus because it has to be.”
In Clallam’s Public Health division, Unthank said their department is small so everyone (including her) has to wear many hats. Reid said Unthank works side-by-side with her staff, whether helping swab for potential COVID-19 cases or delivering food to individuals in isolation.
“It’s not a Monday (through) Friday job,” Reid said.
She recalled Unthank joining her on a Sunday morning sorting and writing out lab sheets and prepping about 300 COVID-19 test specimens for testing.
“She’s down here doing the dirty work with us. She’s never above that,” Reid said.
Unthank has taken time off from primary care to focus on COVID-19, but starting this week she’ll work one day a week at Jamestown in the respiratory clinic.
Unthank said being the health officer is a lot of work but that she feels grateful to be employed — and to be a new mom.
She and her husband Edward Unthank, a marketing consultant, welcomed a baby girl nine months ago.
Limited time with her baby has been hard though, she said.
“I came back to work two months after I gave birth to her,” Unthank said.
Not long afterward, the 2019 novel coronavirus came to the Olympic Peninsula.
Some days, baby Unthank came to the office with her mom and was common on video calls too.
Like many parents, Unthank had to choose between staying home with her daughter or working and opting for daycare.
“The only option for her is to go to daycare, because otherwise I couldn’t be here,” Unthank said.
“It was a challenge for us to accept that risk.”
One benefit, however, is frequent trips to a park where they look at plants and talk about what they see.
“I do feel very lucky to live in a place like Sequim that’s shockingly beautiful,” Unthank said.
There’s also a special joy of holding her baby after she puts down her work for the day, she said.
As the health officer, Unthank said she feels “an intense responsibility for the health of everybody.”
“Especially in the early days of the pandemic when there wasn’t clear data or enough materials,” she said. “For a time there, firefighters, doctors and nurses were seeing people without masks.”
Kennedy said Unthank was an advocate through the Emergency Operations Center to help agencies receive more personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers.
“There were times we were down to a couple weeks’ supply,” Kennedy said.
“For a healthcare system, that doesn’t feel good. Now we have a range of 60-days to a 600-day supply, depending on the PPE.”
Unthank has also helped agencies and businesses navigate state regulations on PPE use and reuse.
“I don’t know if other counties are working as closely with their health officer as us, but it’s been extremely helpful to have that,” Kennedy said.
Sequim schools superintendent Dr. Robert Clark said he’s been in constant contact with Unthank for her guidance on reopening schools.
“I spent a lot of time over the last month with Dr. Allison Unthank,” Clark said Monday. “I think she’s a community treasure. I appreciate what she’s done for us.”
Hugs and masks
Unthank said she’s intentional about using resources that only the general public would have, such as wearing a cloth mask in the grocery store and not a higher filter mask.
She too keeps up with the recommendation of washing her hands frequently, wearing a mask, keeping 6 feet apart from people and using hand sanitizer in her car after going into a store.
Her biggest rule is washing her hands before picking up the baby.
She also feels comfortable walking in a park with her daughter without a mask while maintaining social distance from others.
“I do also try to enjoy those moments,” she said.
With a lot of time dedicated to work, Unthank said she doesn’t have a lot of time for gatherings but she does still see her mother for outdoor meet-ups.
“In one of my recent briefings, I said it’s OK to hug briefly,” Unthank said.
“We wear a mask, wash our hands and hug and watch the baby play in the backyard. A brief hug is good for anyone.”
She cautions that anyone can catch the coronavirus though and people are most likely to give it to someone they know. Unthank encourages people to have a friend for quarantine and/or to expand social circles a little bit depending on people’s level of interactions with others.
“If everyone works from home, then maybe they can go a little bit bigger in their circle,” she said.
Dr. Molly Martin, deputy director of population health at Jamestown Family Health Clinic, has been friends with Unthank for about three years, saying she’s honest and dependable.
“Clallam County is really lucky to have her,” Martin said. “She has the best interest in mind for the decisions she makes.
For Unthank’s research, Martin said it’s “level-headed” and “she’s not going to fall for a lot of sensationalist information and is grounded in evidence-based healthcare perspectives.”
Unthank said that, after her baby goes to bed, her most common bedtime reading is poring over the latest research on the pandemic. Her primary sources of information come from the Centers for Disease Control, World Health Organization and Washington’s Department of Health.
She said she understands the frustration of some residents about mixed messages going out across the community.
“With COVID-19, studies have been put out faster and without peer review, but some studies aren’t that great,” she said.
Unthank said unclear federal leadership has made managing the virus harder for rural areas.
“People are getting mixed messages and getting inaccurate information. That’s made it harder to get people on board,” she said.
“I’ve tried to make recommendations as apolitical as possible. This virus doesn’t care who you vote for.”
One of her biggest challenges as health officer was the federal change in recommending masks.
“As soon as we found out they were recommended, we’ve been consistent on that,” Unthank said.
Along with the ups of a relatively low infection rate in the county and a high compliance rate for required facial coverings/masks, Unthank has received “some pretty intense hate mail” with some of it “pretty misogynistic.”
But Unthank continues to take the high road.
“Some of it is people are just concerned,” she said. “To read how challenging the world is right now, people have lost their incomes and are afraid they’re going to lose their homes or can’t pay their rent or mortgages.”
Reid said staff interpret that anger as people are more scared of the unknowns with the virus.
“Somebody is mad about their business or something, but Allison gets to the root of the problem. She’ll ask, ‘What can we do to help with this situation?’” Reid said.
“She changes people’s minds everyday.
“Where we live, there are a lot of people who don’t think Covid is real or don’t want to follow rules. She has a graceful way of explaining it. Although it may not impact your family, it may impact another family.”
Martin said it’s common to refer patients to the county’s website on the virus at www.clallam.net/coronavirus.
“Allison is consistent and backs up her recommendations with the best of the best resources,” she said.
“This is still a very emerging pandemic and there’s a lot we will learn in the next 6-12 months,” Martin said. “Recommendations now probably won’t be the same in 6-12 months. I know she has our best interests at heart. She doesn’t take any of this lightly.”