Time for Something New Post-pandemic, Olenek refocuses priorities

After 36 years with the Will County Health Department, including the last six as executive director, Sue Olenek will be retiring as of February 3.
After 36 years with the Will County Health Department, including the last six as executive director, Sue Olenek will be retiring as of February 3.

By Nick Reiher

Sue Olenek remembers the day in late December 2021 when it seemed the Will County Health Department might have finally turned the corner on the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was about this time last year about late December 2021.

“I wasn’t getting any emails at 10:30 at night,” said Olenek, executive director of the Health Department.

“And when I got in early the next morning, there were only 50 or 60 – the usual amount – instead of upwards of 300 I had been receiving each day.”

From late December 2019 until that time in December 2021, dealing with the many, continually changing variables of COVID-19, she said, was a “24-hour-a-day, every day job” for her and her administrative staff.

Olenek says COVID-19 affected everyone in one way or another. For her, it meant realizing she needed to spend more time with her family … once the situation was sufficiently under control.

After 36 years with the Will County Health Department, including the last six as executive director, Olenek will be retiring as of February 3.

“COVID always will be with us, like seasonal flu,” she said. “But I finally felt like the crisis was over, and the department was back to normal enough to consider retiring.

“But I wanted to go through one more holiday season here. These people are my work family. I’ve known some for 30 years.”

Fresh out of college

A Lincoln-Way area native and graduate, Olenek began her career at the Will County Health Department in 1986 after graduating from Illinois State University with a degree in biology.

She started in Environmental Health, which oversees well testing, restaurant health compliance, radon programs, tanning parlors, private sewage treatment systems. Three years later, Olenek began a 10-year venture as program manager for the division.

Then it was eight years as Director of Administrative Services, where she oversaw programs and staff for all support service departments, including Human Resources, Facilities Management, Information Technology and Telecommunications, Finance/Accounting, Security, Front Desk Reception, Courier Services, and Vital Records.

She also was in charge of preparing agency budgets in cooperation with the Division Heads, and kept the Will County Board of Health up to date on financials.

With the broad experience she achieved since being hired, the Board of Health chose her to replace Executive Director John Cicero when he retired in 2016.

Olenek said she didn’t have an eye on the top job as she progressed; only wanting to focus on the duties at hand. But when Cicero was about to retire, she decided to throw her hat in the ring to continue focusing on some changes she wanted to see.

“One of those was the new building; another, the strategic plan, the call center for the agency, additional administrative staffing to support the managers, increases in management salaries along with some restructuring of positions, and some ITT advances.”

But much of that would have to wait, as Olenek found herself in front of Will County Board members at various committees asking for loans to keep the department running. They were running more than $2 million in the hole, due to the state not paying the county because of the budget impasse at the time.

Initially denying a second loan, the County Board ultimately approved the loans, staving off cuts to dozens of staff and the Adult Behavioral Health program.

Olenek was able to maintain her composure as she was grilled by board members, some of whom didn’t want to lend the money to the Health Department with no guarantee it could be paid back.

While many board members understand the need for countywide health services and how the department fulfills that, Olenek said there have been some who aren’t clear on who provides what and how.

Checking Off a Big Box

Health Department officials had been discussing the need for a new building to replace the one on Ella Avenue built in the 1920s as the county’s TB sanitarium. Along with cramped quarters, the building had a leaky roof and warped floors.

When a new building was included in the county’s major capital plan – along with the new courthouse and the sheriff’s new public safety center – Olenek once again faced the music from county board members at committee meetings.

Some wondered why a new one had to be built, instead of using the old courthouse or part of the County Office Building.

Olenek finally was able to convince them many of the same employees traveled back and forth from the building to nearby Community Health Center.

Construction for the new building began in 2018 and was expected to be completed by the end of 2020.

‘We Don’t Know What We’re Dealing With’

In late November 2019, Olenek read a report about a virus in China, something that wasn’t all that unusual.

“But, by late December, I was hearing of cancellations of parties and other large gatherings due to the virus. That’s when I started to take notice.”

There were more closures and warnings as the weeks of early 2020 progressed, including the need for Olenek to close down the Health Department because an increasing number of staff was getting COVID-19.

She decided to shut down the Health Department, a problem for many, including the Health Department response.
“We have an operation plan; we have an operations room where staff works during emergencies. But we couldn’t use it because we couldn’t be together.

“That was my first ‘Oh, my gosh’ moment. … But going virtual was a game changer. I have an amazing IT Department.”
With COVID cases, ICU cases and deaths increasing each month, Olenek and her staff began a 16-month journey along a winding road of helping the public navigate confusing and sometimes conflicting information coming from federal and state health officials.

“I would be on a phone call with IDPH, and they would say, ‘Remember what we did yesterday? We’re not doing that anymore. We’re doing this.’ That happened a lot.”

One of the more uncomfortable duties for the department during that time was “enforcing” the governor’s orders to close or limit certain businesses. Olenek said the department received many calls a day about violations, and some of the encounters got pretty heated, but not physical.

“Our stance never was to go out and close people down. Our goal was to make sure the requirements were being followed and to educate.

“Believe me, I understand these businesses were people’s livelihoods. It’s how they and their employees earned money. We didn’t know what we were dealing with, but we knew it spread quickly.”

Olenek sometimes frustrated county officials and media who could not reach her personally at times during the pandemic. She would remind them that while COVID-19 took up much of her time, she still had to oversee five Health Department divisions, as well as keep an eye on construction of the new Health Department building.

But she made sure she was as accessible to the public as possible.

“Many of the health directors in other counties had messages on their emails saying they couldn’t reply right away, but would get back to them as soon as possible. I never, I never put that on mine.

“Those messages were all important. People had questions. People were scared. I wanted to make sure their needs were met. I did the best I could.”

Soon, it became clear there were more questions than people to handle them by phone. As the pandemic grew throughout 2020, Will County residents began flooding the Health Department with calls, too many for the few staffers manning the phones.

Olenek said County Executive Jennifer Bertino-Tarrant came to the rescue by hiring a firm to handle the calls and refer them to the proper departments. That became especially crucial, as did enhancements on the department’s website, when testing kits and later, vaccines came about.

“People don’t understand the complexity of setting up a (vaccination) clinic,” she said. The department was greatly aided by volunteers and first-responders such as the Joliet Fire Department to set up and staff the clinics.

“If there was any positive that came out of all of this, it was the new partnerships we had with the Spanish Community Center, the National Hookup of Black Women and the South Suburban Immigrant Project.”

Though many of his followers had serious questions about the initial rollout of the vaccine, President Trump’s “Operation Warp Speed” was critical to getting the vaccine vetted and out to those who needed it, Olenek said.

Time to think

As the pandemic began to wind down, Olenek, like many who lived through it, pondered what was most important at this point in her life.

She loves to cook and bake, but her work schedule often meant grabbing a quick, and not always healthy, bit on the run.
It also meant not seeing much of her husband, Larry, except for a quick “love you” in the hallway at their home as they got ready for work. Their two grown children are out on their own, and, like millions of others, they didn’t get to see them much in person.

“I’m not against getting a job, maybe volunteering or teaching. I’m not a person who has to just be busy. I like to be productive.”
Olenek said she is proud of the work she has done, including helping the county to erect a new Health Department building that’s safe and useful for staff and the public alike.

“It truly was a labor of love, especially since we finished it and moved in during the height of COVID.”

Olenek demurs when asked if she knows who her successor may be, saying only they have narrowed it down to some very qualified candidates. Most of the recent executive directors have been internal candidates; small wonder, with 300 employees in five divisions to oversee, aside from any latest health crisis.

And there will be more crises, Olenek said. Asked her reaction to when Monkey Pox became news, Olenek recalls, “You don’t want to know what I said. Something along the lines of, ‘Here we go again.’

“But before that, we had an Ebola outbreak.”
At least for now, there is at least a handle on understanding and responding to COVID.

“We have to learn to live with COVID. It will always be with us. But we can do this by what we have been told for years: wash our hands, eat healthy and get enough sleep.

“And try to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. I don’t think we do enough of that.”

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