The city's top doctor talks about keeping kids busy this summer, public health concerns and, of course, the pandemic.

Dr. Mysheika Roberts goes to work each day with the health of Central Ohioans foremost on her mind. Since 2017, Roberts has served as the health commissioner of Columbus Public Health, the city’s health department. 

Public health has always been Roberts’ passion. The Michigan native grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from the University of Michigan and the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Roberts first came to Columbus in 2004 as part of a fellowship with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Epidemiology Intelligence Service.

What Roberts thought was a short-term assignment turned out to be a long-term commitment. She joined Columbus Public Health in 2006 as medical director and assistant health commissioner, roles she held until her 2017 appointment to the top post. Roberts and her husband, Edward, are parents to a pair of “fur babies”—dogs Cosby and Rudy. 

How did you become interested in medicine?

My father was a physician, and my mom is a nurse. I was around health care, medicine, my whole life. When I was younger—in middle school, high school—I would spend a lot of my summer time working in my dad’s office. I would do things like answer the phone, make appointments and do filing. I always admired the relationship my dad had with his patients.

I was a candy striper in high school. I thought medicine was definitely what I wanted to do. I grew up in L.A. being a huge Los Angeles Lakers fan, and I was in college when Magic Johnson said he was HIV-positive. That’s really what got me interested in public health.

So you followed in your parents’ footsteps, but you put your own twist on it.

Absolutely. I have three other siblings, and I’m the only one who’s done anything in health care. Some of my siblings are afraid of the sight of blood.

What sort of issues do you encounter in public health in Columbus?

The vaccine reluctance of so many people in our community. You hear a lot about this on social media, and maybe a lot of people on the West Coast who are reluctant, are resistant, to getting their kids vaccinated, but it happens here. We’ve got pockets here in Columbus and Franklin County where parents choose not to get their kids vaccinated, or choose to delay the vaccination schedule. That creates a problem for everyone—not only for the individual child potentially who could now be exposed to a deadly disease, but also for the child’s classmates or playmates and family members who might be immunocompromised.

How can parents talk to their kids about the pandemic?

A lot depends on the age of the child. When you get to your teenagers, it’s much easier to talk to them, similar that you would to an adult. The younger kids [have] really struggled over the last few months of: Why can’t they go to school? Why can’t they play with their friends? Why can’t they do the things they had been doing? I’m not a parent, but I can imagine, as a parent, it’s really hard to explain that to a child when we’re talking about a virus that no one can see.

I would talk to a child similar to when a storm comes. Right now, we are leaving the storm, and we’re protecting ourselves so that there won’t be another storm. It’s a challenge.

Should children wear masks?

[The] CDC says that if you’re under the age of 2, masks are not recommended. Their lungs are still developing, and putting a mask on someone that age could be very problematic. Once you have a school-age child, whether we’re talking a 4-year-old, a 5-year-old and up, we know that masks are effective in reducing the spread of disease, particularly asymptomatic spread and pre-symptomatic spread.

How can parents keep their kids both safe and occupied this summer?

There are some venues that are opening that are safer than others. One of those would be parks and zoos. It’s safe to let your kids go to a park—first making sure they don’t go up there sick or anyone in the household is sick. And then washing their hands before, discouraging them from touching their eyes, nose and mouth while they’re there and then making sure you use hand sanitizer while you’re leaving the park.

Kids want to play with other kids, so I would say, try to find a family or two that are going to be your social people for the summer. That could be your siblings, with your nieces and nephews, it could be your next-door neighbor, but trying to find a family that is also going to be practicing some social distancing from the majority of people. 

A shorter version of this Q&A appears in the Summer 2020 issue of Columbus Parent.

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