CHS proved to be gateway for disease investigator Jahvona Pretty

By Ryan Clark
CHS Communications Director

The College of Health Sciences at UK is known as the Gateway to the Health Professions.

There’s no better example of that than Jahvona Pretty.

Pretty started at UK in 2016 with the goals of getting a bachelor’s degree in Clinical Leadership and Management, then moving on to a career as a hospital administrator.

But one elective class in epidemiology and biostatistics changed everything.

“I was like ‘Wow, this is really cool — I think this is what I want to do,’” Pretty said. “It was more like an intro to epidemiology class. It made me want to get into it.”

For those who may not know, epidemiology is — simply — the study of how often health factors occur in different groups of people and why. Careers in epidemiology can include (but aren’t limited to) public health practitioners, research directors and physicians, and they can be employed everywhere from local non-profits to the World Health Organization.

“You get to study the trend of disease, but not only disease,” Pretty said. “It’s basically health factors that affect people, like something like opioid addiction. It doesn’t have to be a disease. So you're seeing the trends and then deciding how we can prevent them from happening.”

So Jahvona Pretty decided to get her graduate degree in Public Health here at UK, which allowed her to work part-time as an Epidemiology Technical Assistant at the state Department of Health in Frankfort. There, she investigated foodborne and waterborne investigations, helping to track down the sources of the problems.

It was contact tracing before any of us ever heard of those terms.

“Salmonella. E.coli. Hep C. Things like that,” she said. “We would try to figure out where people got sick and who they were around.”

She had to call, interview and investigate — and she loved every minute of it. During that summer of 2019, Pretty also assisted in helping to curb one of the biggest E. coli outbreaks in decades, one that infected 209 people over 10 states. The E.coli was traced back to several ground beef producers and restaurants in Illinois.

“We had so many cases, we were working on the weekends,” she said. “But that’s the way it is when there’s a multi-state outbreak.”

It would prepare her well. Pretty graduated with her master’s degree, and when COVID-19 changed the world in March 2020, she got a call from the Fayette County Health Department. They needed a disease investigator, and the position was 100 percent remote.

She was in. And for the past year, 22-year-old Jahvona Pretty has been a disease investigator for Fayette County during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There was a small group of us hired in the beginning, and as it went on, we gained more people to keep up with the cases,” Pretty said. “I didn’t have to deal with patients directly — I was just calling and investigating. I was excited about the opportunity.”

She would have to call people and instruct them to quarantine and isolate. She’d have to educate others on COVID, and what they needed to do to stay safe. She’s even participated in case investigations, working with the state and the FBI.

“I got to talk to a lot of people,” she said. “And sometimes you get the people that are like, ‘Why are you in my business?’ But then you also get the people that are like, ‘You really helped me.’ Like sometimes we have to talk to patients and you notice they have a really bad shortness of breath, and we say they probably need to go to the hospital. Like, we can’t tell people to go, but we can suggest that they maybe shouldn’t stay at home anymore, you know? And we’ve had some people thank us for doing that.”

It’s been rewarding — and something she never thought she’d be doing.

“My job is a contract position right now, so we don’t exactly know what the future looks like — although it looks positive, in terms of the COVID-19 numbers,” she said. “But public health is very broad. I'm happy to have experience like this, and you know, I could continue to do it, but I'm also open to do some other things within public health as well.

“I never would’ve gotten here if it weren’t for my CLM classes,” she continued. “The teachers were so great — I still keep in contact with them. And there were several things I learned in those classes that I still use everyday.”

Namely, her communications skills (like writing), and leadership, she said.

“I would write essays, and I was graded really, really hard,” she said. “But I noticed over time how my writing improved, and it’s something I now do everyday. And as a leader, we were taught how to lead and manage. Learning how to manage a staff, and how to work within a staff, is so important. One speaker told us how she would instruct her staff and say, ‘You’re not working for me. You’re working with me,’ and I really liked that a lot.”

She’s become a big advocate for UK and CHS.

“I always tell people, ‘Go to CLM.’ I tell them about all the support they’ll receive, and how it’s really personal,” she said. “You’re just in a community where you like all the people and you get a lot of guidance. That’s where you’re going to learn, and ultimately, achieve what you want to achieve.”


One Year Later

It’s been a year since COVID-19 first began to change our lives, so here in the College of Health Sciences, we are taking time to celebrate our health and well-being, while also to honor those we’ve lost along the way. 

We are publishing a series of stories that will celebrate our faculty, staff, students and alumni. Never have we been challenged in the ways we were over the past year. We are determined that we will not forget. And we will persevere.