Someone You Should Know: Who is the state epidemiologist in South Dakota?

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Published: Dec. 23, 2020 at 4:00 PM CST
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PIERRE, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - Throughout the last several months, South Dakotans have heard a lot from the Department of Health and how to navigate through this pandemic. One person we’ve heard from often is the state epidemiologist, Joshua Clayton. He’s been the state epidemiologist since 2017. Clayton took over for Lon Kightlinger, who retired after almost 20 years with the South Dakota Department of Health.

“Josh worked just like a dog, just really hard and it was a big project. Nobody did it, so I liked him. He’s smart. He’s a hard worker,” Kightlinger said.

Clayton started working at the Department of Health as an intern while he was a student at South Dakota State University in Brookings. He got his Bachelor’s Degree of Science and worked full time at the Department of Health before Kightlinger encouraged him to further his education.

“A lot of people working in public health, you can have just a bachelor’s degree. You can have a master’s degree, PhD. There are a lot of different ways you can integrate into the public health community,” Clayton said.

He got his master’s in public health with an emphasis in epidemiology from the University of Michigan. He loved it so much, he stayed there for his doctorate.

“His doctoral dissertation was on influenza in children, so Josh is very knowledgeable and qualified to work on this pandemic,” Kightlinger said.

Kightlinger didn’t know it at the time, but he prepared Clayton for one of the biggest moments of his career.

“I made him write the pandemic flu plan for the state. We didn’t really have that,” Kightlinger said. “What an influenza pandemic would look like in South Dakota and what we’d do; the steps, the responses.”

That was back in the early 2000′s. Education has always been at the forefront of public health, whether it’s for West Nile, influenza, Hepatitis C, or what we’re most familiar with right now, COVID-19.

“Anybody working in the healthcare field, there is a lot of pressure to respond to COVID-19 to help get out those prevention messages to the wider general public, so they know how to take precaution and prevent illness,” Clayton said.

Kightlinger said Clayton also worked on Ebola in Africa and did a post doctoral training program with the CDC.

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