Nurse and Infectious Disease Expert Yanti Turang On Working to Protect Students with Crescent City Schools
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, nurse Yanti Turang helped establish a satellite hospital for the city in the New Orleans Convention Center as its Deputy Medical Director.
It was early in our global understanding of the virus and the protocol required to contain it. The 2,000-bed hospital was put together in the course of ten days. And yet, in the entire nine months the hospital was open, none of the 800 staff members that worked there caught the virus.
Yanti Turang knows how to keep people safe.
Turang has worked all over the world, including in Sierra Leone during the Ebola crisis. So, she had a deep understanding of infectious disease and how to minimize its spread. She was an expert in training teams in rigid sanitation and protocols for use of personal protective equipment, and she put that to use in our city.
She also began putting it to use for our children. Before helping lead the satellite hospital, Turang worked at Children’s Hospital. She had also worked as a school nurse across the charter network Crescent City Schools. Eventually, she supervised all the school nurses across the network’s three schools.
“And then it was the start of the pandemic,” she explains. Schools closed soon after the city became aware of the COVID-19 outbreak. But when they began to prepare to re-open, Crescent City Schools asked Turang for help.
“I really believed that we could have kids back in school safely,” she explains. “We just needed to have the protocols there to do it…a lot of it is about training your staff how to assess risk.“
Turang worked with school staff to explain how transmission worked and how they could protect themselves and their students. Then, teams got the tools they needed to put that understanding into action. Under Turang’s guidance, schools used social distancing markers (shaped like hearts and butterflies) on the floor, purchased bulk hand sanitizer, and provided every staff member and bus driver with high-quality KN95 masks. Once vaccines were available, Crescent City Schools were among the first to require them for staff.
“I made myself available to anyone who wanted to ask questions. During this pandemic, many people haven’t had the opportunity to actually talk to a public health care worker…and so I wanted to be able to be that person for Crescent City Schools–whether you’re administration, whether you’re a paraprofessional, whether you’re a parent of a student, I wanted you to be able to talk to someone.”
While the pandemic is an enormous focus, Turang insists that students’ other health needs can’t fall by the wayside. In many cases, she points out, school nurses are the first line of healthcare for students.
“I think school nurses play such an integral part of the school system in New Orleans. They essentially have a role like a primary care physician, they work with hundreds of children, some of whom don’t have access to adequate health care.”
This lack of access stood out to Turang, who has always been interested in health access and inequity.
“I grew up in Australia, and so I have always had access to health care–we have socialized health care. They came to the school, my physician was on the corner, and there wasn’t even a conversation about insurance,” she says.
Her father, however, was from Indonesia, which showed her an opposite extreme of access.
“From a very young age of traveling to Indonesia, I had lived and witnessed health inequity…family members were dying because they didn’t have access to education around diabetes, hypertension, and clean water–fundamental, primary, baseline needs. I was exposed to that as a very young child.”
She says the contrast between her immediate family’s healthcare in Australia and her extended family’s experience in Indonesia shaped her worldview and her passion for public health.
“There has always been a drive for me, not just to understand health and equity, but to kind of crusade with people, so to speak, to understand their privileges.”
She brought this focus and drive to her work in New Orleans.
“I was overwhelmed by the amount of barriers that parents had to overcome just to get to a pediatrician. And this wasn’t on them. This was on the system,” she explains.
Turang is working to fill the gaps in our healthcare system through our schools. Crescent City Schools’ nurses help address the immediate daily concerns of stomach aches and skinned knees. But, they also offer preventative care, provide education for families on how to manage illnesses, and connect students and families with outside health services where they are needed. They offer health information, too, helping students understand their own medical needs in areas like sleep and nutrition.
When it comes to COVID-19, Turang says, students were a beacon of understanding and commitment to best practices.
“They desperately wanted to be in school,” she says. For that reason, she found they quickly understood the health and safety measures that would help keep them there.
“They were the best,” says Turang. “They knew what to do. The kids were like, ‘I know this is a risk, so I’m going to wear a mask’…for me, that is hopeful.”