Getting to know BGSU's Chief Health Officer Ben Batey
Ben Batey tasked with elevating the health, wellness of campus community
Ben Batey, MPH, RN, is no stranger to Bowling Green State University. Born and raised in Toledo, Batey has called northwest Ohio home his entire life. He received a Master of Public Health degree through a joint program between Bowling Green State University and the University of Toledo. And, as the former health commissioner for the Wood County Health Department, a position he held since 2014, Batey has worked closely with BGSU for years.
But when he stepped on the familiar campus July 27, he did it as the University's newly appointed Chief Health Officer, a position tasked with elevating the health and wellness of the campus community. Batey has his sights set on making a major impact at BGSU, and his first task in his new role is a big one: leading the University's COVID-19 Response Team. If anyone is up for the challenge, it's Batey, who has built a career in public health, serving and leading the community he has always called home.
Q. How did you get your start in public health?
A. When I was in college, there was a nursing shortage and a drastic need for people to join the nursing field. I was in business as an undergraduate student, but I took a tour of Mercy Health and really fell in love with working with patients and helping people.
I became a registered nurse and got my start working at Mercy St. Anne Hospital in Toledo in the medical/surgical and emergency departments. I realized the hospital was a difficult place for people to actually heal. We’d be waking patients up throughout the night to take their vital signs, and I always felt terrible about that.
I was intrigued by the idea of home care and transferred to Mercy Home Care, which was really my start in community health. I would go to patients’ homes and run an IV, do wound care or a dressing change, administer medications and check in on them. I actually got to sit with a patient for an hour or two while an IV ran and talked with the person. I did that for four years and loved that job. I went to all areas of northwest Ohio at all hours of the day and night. I saw the full economic spectrum - from extreme poverty to extreme wealth. There was such a sense of gratitude from the people you worked with. That’s when I fell in love with public health - this is how we should be taking care of people, and how we teach people how to take care of themselves.
After I started getting out in the community, I knew I wanted to be part of working with people to keep them from getting sick to begin with. The hospital is a great place to care for people at different stages of their lives, but if we can keep people well for as long as possible, before you need that care, let’s work on that. I want to help steer people in the right direction so we have long-term health and wellness, which feeds into making you a happy individual.
Q. What was early 2020 like as the Wood County Health Commissioner?
A. I can say without question that this has been the most trying year of my life. From early on in January, we started talking about COVID-19 and watching what was going on in China. We know with transportation, all it takes is one flight. We watched it spread through Asia, then Europe and then into the United States. We knew it was coming, so that gave us some time to prepare, but I don’t think anybody knew exactly how quickly it was going to spread across the globe. In the U.S., there was a thought we could get it under control like we have with other viruses, but this has been much trickier and spread rapidly throughout the world.
Once we started seeing our first cases in Ohio, and then Wood County, my phone started ringing and it hasn't stopped since early March. I was the first person on the call down list for the health department’s after-hours line and I would get calls throughout the night. At that time, there was such a fear and uncertainty - we just didn’t know about this virus and our emergency responders needed someone to help guide them in the right direction. I would be in meetings or on the phone all day, and that would continue into the night seven days a week.
When you’re in the moment and you feel like you’re genuinely helping people, you find the strength to power through. It wasn't just me; the entire health department, with our partners in health care and emergency management, responded in the same fashion. There was a mindset that if we work a little longer, maybe just one more hour, if we make a few more phone calls, we’ll be able to make a difference in controlling this.
Q. What have you learned from COVID-19?
A. Every day we learn something new. The lack of knowledge was the biggest challenge on the front end, and the scariest part. It was a new virus and we didn’t know how bad it would be. Because we didn’t know, we needed to be conservative in our decision-making.
As the state was talking about sheltering at home, I had to work with local groups to make tough decisions in canceling events. In the back of your mind, you are wondering, are we making the right decision? Looking back at how the entire state moved in that direction, it was the right call at the right time. And, as we’ve learned how the virus spreads and why it’s important to limit large-scale gatherings, we know now we made the right call. But at that time, we were going with our best-educated guess.
Now, we are starting to learn how we can control this virus. We proved, with our statewide sheltering-in-place order, that we can lower the viral trends. But we also realize we can’t live like that forever. As we approach fall, we are trying to find that place in the middle so there is an appropriate level of activity while still protecting the health care system. That was the ultimate goal in the spring and is still our goal now. We want to be sure the health care system can respond appropriately to those that need the highest levels of care.
"The two most important things our campus community can to do to slow the spread of the virus is to stay home if you’re sick, and follow the safety precautions in place: keep six feet of distance, wear your face covering and practice proper hand washing."
Q. What can the BGSU community do to slow the spread of COVID-19 as we approach fall?
A. We all have control of our own safety and risk level. We want everyone to assess what that looks like for themselves. We are working to be flexible and adaptable across campus to make sure we are able to help every person associated with BGSU make the most appropriate decisions based on their risk levels.
We’ve established new protocols across campus so everyone can go through their day-to-day life on campus and keep six feet of distance. We will have face coverings in place and plexiglass barriers and dividers. We are de-densifying campus and will have some faculty and staff working remotely to reduce the number of people on campus. Students may also be taking classes remotely and not coming on campus this semester.
The two most important things our campus community can to do to slow the spread of the virus is to stay home if you’re sick, and follow the safety precautions in place: keep six feet of distance, wear your face covering and practice proper hand washing. Those things alone will keep people from getting sick. We know individuals get exposed when they are within six feet of someone for greater than 15 minutes. We have the power to control that on campus.
There’s been a massive amount of work done to bring the campus back together as safely as possible, as effectively as possible to slow the spread of COVID-19. It’s really going to come down to individual responsibility to make sure we are all in this together.
This fall is going to be unlike any other the campus has ever seen. It’s not going to be the same campus, but it’s not going to last forever. We will learn, we will adapt. There will be treatments and a vaccine. But for this next semester, we need everyone to do their part.
"Healthy living is part of designing the life you want to lead."
Q. What are you most looking forward to in your new role as BGSU's Chief Health Officer?
A. Our response to COVID-19 is the first and foremost task, but what we are seeing across the county is that this virus is bringing partners together in ways we have never experienced before. The same thing is happening on campus and we are going to build off of those connections for health and wellness moving forward.
Bringing people together to integrate positive health in all aspects of your life has always been my favorite part of public health. I’m excited to do that on campus. Healthy living is part of designing the life you want to lead. I don’t want to achieve career success and have debilitating conditions. We will focus on integrating ways to support students, faculty and staff across campus, physically, mentally and emotionally, to achieve their best health. I’m looking forward to leveraging relationships in a way the campus hasn’t seen before.
Q. BGSU has partnered with the Wood County Health Department in a new, public-public partnership. How will this benefit the campus, and community at large?
A. This is a really unique partnership. There are other health departments that have partnered with universities to form an academic health department, which is meant to be an opportunity for shared learning. I foresee our partnership as being so much more than that in a way that no university has really partnered with a health department before.
This will be a win-win for students, faculty and the health department in shared internships and projects, but there is so much more we can do with this for the general community. Coming from working for the Wood County Health Department, there are sometimes a lack of resources and response in advocating for public health and wellness initiatives. We will be able to leverage shared resources to bring more awareness to important issues. We have students who will benefit from gaining real-world experience. We’re already seeing that with contact tracing, as BGSU has students who will be able to assist us. It’s a win for the community and the University. We’re looking forward to building out similar initiatives on a much larger scale.
Q. How will your role as BGSU's Chief Health Officer recognize all aspects of health and wellness?
A. COVID-19 has taught us how health impacts everything. If we don’t have a healthy society, there can be mental strain, emotional issues and negative economic implications. We need to look at all of these pieces.
I’m lucky enough to be working with the Counseling Center and will be integrating wellness with our partnership with Falcon Health. We are creating an office that oversees the holistic vision of health. Before, our society was built on if you’re sick, you still need to get to work because you have projects and deadlines. We all need to rely on each other to get through this. If I’m sick, I need to stay home. I need to stay home so I don’t spread disease to anyone else. If I’m struggling with mental and emotional stress, there are people who can help.
"We want to build our best life, and the University is here to give you all of the tools to follow your dreams. Part of your dreams is being healthy and we want to instill lifelong wellness."
Q. What is your vision for your role as Chief Health Officer at BGSU?
A. My long-term vision for this partnership between the Wood County Health Department and the University will elevate public health throughout all of northwest Ohio, with BGSU becoming a leading university and voice for public health. We’ve found in local health departments if there are no major health issues going on, people generally don’t pay attention to public health. Now, it is in the spotlight and with that, there are new realizations about the importance of public health and how it impacts our lives in so many ways. BGSU is going to elevate this dialogue throughout northwest Ohio because the University has so many talented individuals working in different research areas and practices – we are going to leverage that work and bring it to the public health table.
At the same time, I want to see us becoming one of the healthiest campuses in the nation. We will elevate access to fitness and exercise, mental and emotional health, wellness and nutrition. We want to build our best life, and the University is here to give you all of the tools to follow your dreams. Part of your dreams is being healthy and we want to instill lifelong wellness.