The Specialists Cohort (Georgia)
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic Dr. Amber Schmidtke recognized there was a large gap between the way that scientists communicate and how non-scientists receive information.
So she made it her mission to reach out to other experts, journalists and the public to work on clear and effective communication about COVID-19.
And she did so in a state that has been among the least transparent and accessible with Coronavirus data in the country — Georgia.
“She has shared and broken down the real facts and meaning behind the Covid numbers for us Georgians when we could not trust our health department to report the data honestly,” wrote one person who nominated Dr. Schmidtke for our program.
Friendly, patient and comforting, she has become one of the most trusted voices in Georgia for analyzing and understanding the COVID-19 pandemic.
A self-described “data nerd,” Dr. Schmidtke worked at Mercer University as a professor in the School of Medicine when the pandemic started.
Dr. Schmidtke earned a Ph.D. in medical microbiology and immunology from Creighton University in Nebraska, and completed her postdoctoral research fellowship in the CDC’s Pertussis and Diphtheria Laboratory, later becoming a microbiologist for the Atlanta-based health protection agency.
She has combined her roles as a public health specialist and college educator to provide meaningful analysis and explanation of disease trends to the public through a popular newsletter and podcast.
As a result of those communication efforts she was invited to serve as a member of the Georgia COVID-19 Data State Task Force, advising government agencies on how to package their complex data to meet the needs of the public.
Dr. Schmidtke frequently informs the public on the issue of school safety during COVID-19, wading into an obscenely politicized debate, using the science and data to advocate for ensuring CDC protocols are closely followed and that teachers are able to get vaccinated.
Dr. Schmidtke warned the public in February when a national cheerleading competition in Atlanta brought more than 40,000 people to the event. She noted the timing of the event, and the risk attendees might bring home or spread the B.1.1.7 variant, of which Georgia ranks fifth in the country for confirmed cases.
An article from the Mercer University newsletter detailed how Dr. Schmidtke joined the state task force to help with presenting data to the public.
“She works most closely with the Georgia Geospatial Information Office, which maps data, and has helped the health department refine how the information is presented on its website,” the article stated.
When data from Georgia would go missing or was suspicious, Dr. Schmidtke called them out, worked to find answers, and led her state (and the country) by example with her steadfast, data-driven approach.
Though with her calming and disarming demeaner, she tries to always end on a positive note, even if the risk is grave.
“I understand and acknowledge that anxiety that people are feeling. The good news is the measures we’ve been recommending this whole time will help us to limit transmission of these new variants and that’s really what we should be focused on right now,” said Dr. Schmidtke in an interview last month.
Dr. Schmidtke’s continued energy and enthusiasm for reporting data and being an accessible, reliable, trustworthy source for Georgia and beyond make her a true data hero.
A few comments from those who nominated Dr. Schmidtke:
“Dr. Schmidtke not only kept up with very hard to acquire data to keep Georgians informed when the state failed to do so, she also put it in a very accessible format. She has been informative about the state’s true numbers (GA never reported rapid test results) and realistic in her assessments of hospital capacities. Her emails have been calming because they are honest and although they contain a lot of data they are so clear they are never overwhelming. I’m grateful for her hard work, her empathy, and her patience.”
“As Georgia DOH struggled with their own reporting, Amber filled in the blanks with her multiple-times-a-week analysis and explanations. She made the data come to life and wasn’t afraid to give her opinion on what it meant. Her explanations are so clear. She also then replies to comments and answers questions. She moved to Kansas and picked up reporting there but continued with GA!”