Diana Silimperi recognized the signs of a health crisis right away once news of COVID-19 hit. She would know: She’s spent her career on the global health frontlines, working as a public health pediatrician, epidemiologist and thought leader and serving some of the most vulnerable populations in more than 50 countries throughout Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Having worked throughout her career to address the vast public health inequities that exist for disenfranchised communities, Silimperi was spurred to take on the escalating threat of this new coronavirus outbreak in her own community in Pamlico County, North Carolina.
Silimperi, a visiting professor of the practice of global health at DGHI since last spring, says the communities around her are highly susceptible to a major outbreak in a way similar to some of those in less-developed, low-resource countries. The county’s population includes many people over the age of 65, a high proportion with dangerous COVID-19 comorbidities such as hypertension and diabetes. There isn’t even a hospital in the county. She reached out to the local health department as well as the head of the local emergency services, to see how she might help.
“I wanted to see as a resident how I could share some of my knowledge and experience that I had,” Silimperi says.
She was invited to be part of the Pamlico County Health Advisory Board and spearheaded the creation of the Pamlico County COVID-19 Community Task Force and Resource Network (CCTF), a volunteer organization to engage community response to COVID-19 and support the county’s official pandemic response. She emphasizes the task force isn’t replacing or serving as an official arm of the county’s health department or the Pamlico County COVID-19 Task Force.
In a short amount of time. Silimperi says the CCTF built an impressive people-powered local infrastructure. Made up of churches, nonprofits, informal social clubs and community leaders, the volunteer force of about 140 members is spreading the word about stay-at-home orders, sharing health information and even mobilizing a mask-making team to supply face coverings to essential workers, responders and other citizens.
“The network is the most powerful intervention we are carrying out,” Silimperi says. “People who have lived here full-time, who were born here and have lived here for decades, have been participating. It’s now reaffirming for us that this network is something that has potential and should be sustained — they’ve never had anything quite like it here before.”
Silimperi’s North Carolina roots run deep. She earned her undergraduate and medical degrees from Duke in 1974 and 1979, respectively, and deciding to buy a home with her husband in Pamlico County back in 2007. After years working internationally, she finally settled down in the area full-time two years ago.
In a time of dangerous medical misinformation, the task force’s commitment to communicating to the community is vital. Silimperi says if the task force can be sustained down the line, she hopes to see the potential for more DGHI involvement, like formal student internship opportunities.
But for now, just seeing the group playing an important role in her community is a big reward.
“At a time when hope is difficult, with so many terrible things happening in the world, it’s not only gratifying, but really inspiring,” Silimperi says. “There are honorable people who do care, who are eager to help and to be engaged. It’s reaffirmed that, if maybe not everyone, a significant proportion of the people here really want to be helpful for others and themselves.”