#AdAstraStrong Star Stories: Dr. Jennifer Scott Koontz

“Ad astra per aspera” is the state motto of Kansas, which translates to “to the stars through difficulties” – a sentiment that has never felt more true than it does today. It emphasizes our values and optimism that, even when faced with the most difficult hardships, we come together as a state and keep our sights set on what’s important. We launched our #AdAstraStrong campaign to highlight “stars” throughout Kansas who are going above and beyond to give back to their community and provide hope during these challenging times. Stay tuned for more star stories and stay #AdAstraStrong.

If you know a Kansas “star” who is shining bright and helping others during the COVID-19 outbreak, nominate them on Facebook by sharing a brief description of their story with the #AdAstraStrong hashtag or email us at social@bcbsks.com. We can’t wait to tell more stories about the inspiring people who are embodying the strength and resiliency of Kansas right now.

We are excited to recognize our next star, Jennifer Scott Koontz, MD, MPH from Newton, Kansas. Dr. Koontz has been actively helping her community during the pandemic by organizing groups to sew masks, writing articles to keep the community informed on coronavirus (COVID-19) news and policy changes, and consulting on county social distancing guidelines. Dr. Koontz grew up in Hutchinson, KS, and went to Bethel College in North Newton, KS. She then graduated with a Master of Public Health and a Doctor of Medicine degree from the University of Kansas School of Medicine. After completing her residency, Dr. Koontz moved to Newton, KS, where she has worked as a family and sports physician since 2009.

What have you been doing in Newton to assist your community during the COVID-19 pandemic?  

I serve as the president of the Harvey County Medical Society (HCMS). In this role, I have coordinated a group of physicians to give input to our county’s re-opening and testing plans for COVID-19. In addition to advocating for adequate testing and contact tracing programs, we also promote frequent handwashing, social/physical distancing and wearing face masks in public spaces. I have also been writing daily COVID-19 updates for the community and writing a column for our local newspaper.

How did you get the idea to condense information about COVID-19 and distribute it to your community? Also, how do you decide what to share and how often?

Like many physicians, I have been reading as much information as possible to learn about COVID-19. I thought it would be a great idea to share what I’m learning with those in our community. I am a fierce believer that facts and education are important to address any challenge. Facts help us understand how to protect our communities and can keep us calm in times of great uncertainty.

When I made my first Facebook post, I had no plan for how often I would do it. Many people seemed to appreciate the factual information on science and policy recommendations, and I realized that the posts could be important to keep everyone informed and reduce confusion. I started doing these updates on March 18, and I publish an update each evening. I strive to share important new scientific findings on testing, treatment and vaccines, as well as important policy updates that affect our country, state and local community.

After I started the Facebook posts, the editor of our local paper, NewtonNow, reached out to me and asked if I would write columns for the paper, which I have been doing for a few weeks.

Another way you are helping the community is by organizing a group to sew face masks to donate. How did you get the idea to gather a group of people to start sewing the masks?

The HCMS strives to contribute to our community through service. We began donating face masks because we felt that it was one of the best ways we could promote safety in our community.

There are not enough medical masks for the public to wear, so homemade face masks are now recommended and have been shown to reduce the spread of respiratory droplets. I know that face masks are important to wear, and I also know not everyone is able to sew masks or has easy access to buy a face mask. So, I started calling people in town that I knew were involved in sewing and they helped me form a plan to have the face masks sewn and delivered to members in our community. I don’t have sewing skills, so I’m very appreciative of their help!

How many people are involved in the sewing project?

Several people are involved in this project. First, I reached out to Charlotte Wolfe who owns Charlotte’s Sew Natural, a local store in Newton. She was excited to help me develop this project. We purchased fabric from her store, and she put together kits for the sewers to make 10 masks. In these kits, her team included prewashed and cut fabric and a pattern to instruct sewers on how to make the masks. After the masks are sewn, they are turned back into Charlotte, who is washing the masks and adding nose pieces.

In order to recruit more people to sew the masks, I reached out to Bonnie Neufeld, another member of our community. Bonnie has been recruiting members from the community to sew and has been helping us purchase elastic for the masks through her fabric store. Her house has served as the pick-up and drop-off spot for the mask kits.

Through Charlotte and Bonnie’s work, we have recruited about 45 volunteers to sew the masks. We donated money to Laura Meier, a member of our community, for her time and supplies and her group has made 500 masks. I have two sisters in Kansas City who are great seamstresses, Natalie and Regan Scott. Charlotte sent them fabric and they made an additional 100 masks. Our original goal was to make 1,000 masks, but we have already made nearly 1,200.

We have been working with the Newton School District to distribute the masks to members of our community. The Newton School District has been giving out over 900 lunches per day, and we have been including masks with the lunches. We thought this would be a fantastic way to reach a lot of members in our community.

Lastly, what is something you’d like the people in your community to know?

Wearing a face mask in public, washing your hand frequently, avoiding touching your face with your hands and practicing social/physical distancing are all very important public health measures that each of us can do on a daily basis. I also want to say thank you to everyone who is working hard to make the community a safer place while scientists are working hard to find an effective vaccine for COVID-19.

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