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Yari Ijeh And The Team Approach to Success

LeadershipYadira Ijeh is a Program Director with the Department of Children and Families reporting to Deputy Commissioner Jodi Hill-Lilly, who is responsible for administration of this large social service agency employing about 3,200 staff.

So, when the Department got thrust into the COVID-19 pandemic along with everything else in our state, country and world, it was necessary that Commissioner Dorantes would need to quickly identify Department leaders who were organized, quick learners and work with proficient accuracy. One such leader would be tapped to play a critical role in pulling all of the Department's COVID response together.

"We see the impact of Yari's work each day with her organizational skills, assessment of data and focus during our meetings. She has been an integral part in mitigating virus transmission. She has become an arm-chair detective, piecing together clues that unlock the Department's coronavirus narrative. Director Ijeh has worked around the clock to ensure Department leaders have the information necessary to respond to themes and trends as a result of the contact tracing protocol established. Yari also has worked with our facility teams to coordinate testing and vaccination vendors. DCF would not have been able to have such a relatively light transmission footprint without Yari's leadership," stated Commissioner Vannessa Dorantes.

"Yari has been involved with so many important special projects at the Department over the years," Deputy Commissioner Hill-Lilly said. "She has proven over and over again that everything she does is done competently, efficiently and with the ultimate goal of serving our families better and achieving better outcomes for children."

CDC logoYari is part of a three-member contact tracing team at the Department along with Director of Pediatrics Nicole Taylor, M.D., and Human Resources Assistant Director Attorney Erin Ryan. (See separate profiles in this Spotlight.) Each member of the team brings their own expertise to the process. Dr. Taylor brings the medical expertise necessary to determine who has been exposed to a staff person who tested positive for COVID-19.  According to the Center for Disease Control, a close contact is anyone who was within 6 feet of an infected person for a total of 15 minutes or more. An infected person can spread COVID-19 starting from 48 hours (or 2 days) before the person has any symptoms or tests positive for COVID-19.  The use of appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is also used to determine whether an individual is identified as a close contact.  Ms. Ryan brings her expertise and experience in labor relations and her oversight of the labor specialists who obtain the information from staff used in the contact tracing process.

Yari said the team approach is vital to the success of the contact tracing operation. "This is not work I could have done alone," she said. "Each of us brings a different type of expertise."

Yari facilitates the meetings in which the information about who was potentially exposed to the positive staff member is gathered, assessed and then summarized for Commissioner Vannessa Dorantes and her executive team. It is at that meeting when the team determines who had "close contacts" with the positive staff person. Then the managers and administrators overseeing those potentially exposed staff are notified and the tracing commences from there by the labor specialists supervised by Ms. Ryan.

Yari was thrust into the role in October after just coming back from a maternity leave.

Yadi Ijeh"I came home from the hospital on Tuesday and on Thursday the state shut down," said Yari who took the leave beginning in March. "When I came back from maternity leave in October, I've been doing COVID work ever since." The Department is grateful for her capacity and willingness to take on this tremendous endeavor.

Like everyone else, Yari did not anticipate this kind of work consuming her days. "It's unfortunate, but I have learned so much," she said. "When I look back on my career, I'll say 'I can't believe I could do that.'"

In addition to the contact tracing, Yari is also overseeing the process for determining which staff would be prioritized for the vaccine and then facilitating the actual administration of the vaccine. She worked closely with the Comptroller's Office and Griffin Hospital to set up mobile vaccine clinics at the Department's two Albert J. Solnit Children Centers located in Middletown and East Windsor. She said over 200 staff at the facilities have been vaccinated since January.

Yari said the experience has been humbling due to how important it is for the Department to keep staff safe so that they can in turn do their jobs of strengthening families and keeping children safe.

"No one has done this before," she said of responding to a global pandemic. "No one really has experience with it, and that the agency leadership gave this role to me is humbling."

She said the experience has also been empowering. "This has taught me a lot about myself. Oh, yea, I can do that," she remembers thinking. "I organized this process in a way that allows us to move more quickly. As a result, we can effectively and efficiently conduct these meetings so we can move forward.

"It is a well-oiled machine with the right people at the table," she said.

Yari said the team works without boundaries - working nights and weekends as needed." 

"We are connected in a way that I've not seen before," she said. "It's time sensitive, important work, and we don't take a rest because COVID doesn't take a rest."