By Michelle Wagner | Outer Banks Voice on March 8, 2021
In the past year, Debbie Dutton has taken a single day off from work – Christmas.
Her job explains why.
For the last 12 months, Dutton, the Dare County Clinical and Community Nursing Director, along with her clinical operations team, have been working on the frontlines of the county’s response to a once-in-a-hundred-years pandemic that has disrupted virtually every aspect of American life — the COVID-19 outbreak.
That work has included contact tracing of those who are infected, taking charge of the crucial case investigations that involve daily monitoring and support to OVID-19 positive residents, notifying close contacts of quarantining requirements and data tracking. Earlier in the pandemic, when much of the county’s COVID-response involved testing, Dutton and her team were an integral part in the local testing events. Now, as the focus shifts to getting vaccine doses in arms, she has been a key figure in rolling out the county’s vaccination clinics.
Through the end of February, the county had administered more than 14,000 first and second shots of the vaccine.
“I am grateful beyond words for Debbie Dutton,” asserts Dare County Health and Human Services (DCDHHS) Director Sheila Davies, who has been the public face of the county’s battle against the pandemic. “She leads with care and compassion and has been a shining star in Dare County’s pandemic response. We are blessed with her talent, energy, enthusiasm and genuine care for others.”
Dutton says she never dreamed that the years of planning and preparing for a global pandemic would be put into practice during her career. But when COVID was first detected here in March 2020, the 30-year DCDHHS veteran was ready.
“It’s just incredible to see all of that planning over the years come to fruition,” says Dutton, who now has what she refers to as a 24/7 phone to respond to COVID-19-related matters around the clock.
“We definitely work when we have to work,” Dutton notes. “We don’t take holidays off, we haven’t taken weekends off.”
Dutton’s career in nursing began after she graduated from the University of Akron in 1984. She first worked in the pediatrics unit of a local Akron hospital before moving to the Outer Banks five years later. Soon after, she secured a position as a school nurse for the health department and then was promoted to school nurse supervisor. In 2016, Dutton took over as the department’s clinical and community nursing director.
For many months during the past year, Dutton and her team were dedicated largely to contact tracing, notifying both COVID-19 positive individuals of their test results and identifying and contacting close contacts of that person – a task that proves to be very time consuming after making that initial call. As cases increased in Dare County, Dutton was in charge of training new and existing staff on contact tracing.
But the declining number of positive COVID-19 cases in recent weeks, Dutton says, has allowed her and her staff to turn their focus to vaccination efforts: “That is the big push right now, to get our community vaccinated, and to prevent further infection. We will take as much [vaccine] as the state will give us and push it out as quickly as we can.”
Dare County administered its first COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 23 and since then, the department has been holding mass vaccination clinics where between 500 and 1,500 doses are administered. And Dutton has been instrumental in seeing that those clinics are run efficiently and smoothly.
“My role has kind of shifted more into receiving those vaccines, managing the inventory, scheduling vaccination clinics and getting staff to man those clinics,” Dutton explained. “I have been able to transition most of the contact tracing to the individuals who now have been doing it for several months.”
For Dutton, one of the biggest challenges of the past year has been her pandemic duties with her existing responsibilities that need to be completed on a daily basis. But she wears her passion for her work on her sleeve.
“I could not imagine doing this if I didn’t love it,” she says. “I get tired at the end of the day, I get tired at the end of the week, I’ve got days that I’m just physically and emotionally tired. But I love what I do, I love serving my community, I love the people I work with.”
To that end, Davies notes that even behind a mask, “Debbie’s genuine warmth and care for others exudes.”
Dutton also points to the connections she’s made throughout the pandemic as a source of inspiration – the personal stories people have shared with her of losing family members and friends to COVID-19, or who have suffered with the disease themselves.
“To hear these stories,” she asserts, “there are literally some patients I’ve spoken to that it’s brought a tear to my eye because they are so grateful to finally have the opportunity to receive a vaccine.”
Speaking to the progress the county has seen as far as recent decreases in COVID-19 positive cases as well as the rising number of inoculations, Dutton is hopeful these factors point to better times ahead.
“From the very beginning, not knowing where we were going to end up, and being hopeful that it wasn’t going to be as bad as it was…just working through that and now we’ve got the vaccine and we’re just optimistic that this is now the beginning of the end,” she notes. “You know, we are going to get through this.”
And while this has clearly been the most challenging year of her career, Dutton makes it clear she’s up for that challenge.
“I’ve been here 30 years and I’ve said this to a couple different people,” she says, “’This pandemic is not going to take me out. I’m going to see this through.’”
With this story, the Outer Banks Voice introduces “Unsung Heroes,” a feature that profiles individuals whose work or activities help to improve life and lives in our community. The subjects can range from your next-door neighbor to a sheriff’s deputy, and the goal is to recognize someone making the OBX a better place — and doing so out of the bright glare of the public spotlight. If you have a nomination, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.