By Hannah Lee / Photography by John Michael Simpson
The Christmastime wind was bone-chilling. Quintana Stewart carefully stepped out of her car and onto an icy parking lot at Lattisville Grove Missionary Baptist Church. It was not the ideal day to be volunteering outside at a vaccination pod (point of dispensing), but it was a ready reprieve from her back-to-back Zoom meetings about the changing COVID-19 guidelines.
She had never explored the northern-most part of the county in her three years directing the Orange County Health Department. But Quintana felt a sudden sense of relief as she greeted community members who lined up to receive their first dose. “I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel,” she thought.
Finally. A word that’s never rang more true than in 2021, thanks to her.
There’s no book on how to handle a global crisis. Yet Quintana stayed calm all the same this past year.
“That’s just my personality in general,” she says. “I don’t do well with this panicky kind of response. I like to take a deep breath – pause. Think it through.”
She remembers March 13, 2020, like it was yesterday: Orange County’s first confirmed case and her first formal briefing to announce the news. Since then, she has led at least one pandemic-related briefing a day, whether that’s with her staff of 120-plus employees or for elected officials and policymakers.
“I like to say I am an introvert by nature,” she says, “but nothing about this COVID response has allowed me to operate in that way.”
Not that she’s complaining though. Quintana always knew it was a requirement of the job.
Before she became director in December 2017, she worked as the public health preparedness coordinator in Forsyth County for 6 ½ years, where she assisted in the fight against the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic. That experience came in handy for the current crisis.
Protecting the public against major diseases is actually the reason she entered the field in the first place. She originally wanted to be a nurse, becoming a certified nursing assistant in high school and winning a nursing scholarship to East Carolina University. Over summer breaks, she worked at an assisted living facility in Greensboro. One of her patients was dying from ovarian cancer, and all Quintana could do was keep her comfortable, giving her ice chips and helping her reposition.
The memory serves as a permanent reminder and motivation for her current day-to-day duties. “That was the night I knew,” she says. “I said, ‘This is not for me.’ I want to do something to help people before they get to this stage.”
To that mission, she kept the area’s 149,000 residents safe through enacting new health guidelines and organizing free testing sites and now vaccine clinics. As of mid-April, her team administered nearly 17,000 vaccine shots.
The Chamber For a Greater Chapel Hill-Carrboro honored her for all of this at its annual meeting in January with the Duke Energy Citizenship and Service Award.
“[The past year] was an accelerated type of introduction to the community,” she says. “But I wouldn’t give anything for it. And yeah, it’s been hard work, but it’s also been rewarding.”