Maura Valley and Matt Poole, two of the five Island health agents, got new jobs in March.

Edgartown health agent Matt Poole has been on the job for 23 years. — Jeanna Shepard

Only their title remains the same.

“Up until coronavirus, the bread and butter of boards of health was wells, septic systems, and food service,” said Mr. Poole in an interview with the Gazette. “The traditional stuff.”

“All of that is out the window,” Ms. Valley said.

Since those fateful days in early March, a pandemic has ripped across the globe, infecting millions of people worldwide, including more than 30 residents of the Vineyard.

As public health agents, the onus has fallen on Ms. Valley in Tisbury and Mr. Poole in Edgartown, along with their colleagues Omar Johnson in West Tisbury, Marina Lent in Chilmark and Meegan Lancaster in Oak Bluffs, to track cases, enforce public health regulations, inform decision for town officials and interact with the public — all tasks unfamiliar to town officials used to spending their days shutting down tattoo parlors or collecting soil samples.

Speaking to the Gazette by phone Thursday morning, Ms. Valley and Mr. Poole talked about the experience of working as a five-person team of health agents over the past two months, attempting to shepherd the public as it races to outpace what has become the ultimate public health crisis.

“Once this hit, we became the conduit,” Mr. Poole said. “Everything runs through public health with this topic. It’s not a hurricane. It’s not a blizzard. This is a highly contagious virus . . . so we’re not out with snowplows and chainsaws. We are dealing with something you can’t see. And you can’t predict.”

The two have completely different backgrounds. He grew up on the Island, the son of a commercial fisherman. She was a city girl from South Boston who came to the Island after nursing school. Both said nothing could have prepared them for a pandemic.

“In the back of our minds, we always talked about emergency planning, and pandemics, and being prepared for that,” Ms. Valley said. “But I don’t think we ever envisioned it being what it turned out to be.”

Maura Valley came to the Island fresh out of nursing school in Boston and has worked her way up through the ranks. — Jeanna Shepard

Yet both have spent most of their professional lives involved with public health, their experience proving useful when coordinating with their team of colleagues throughout the six towns. Mr. Poole has served on the Chilmark board of health for decades and has held his role as Edgartown health agent for 23 years. Ms. Valley spent decades moving up through the Tisbury health department before taking over the job in 2015.

“I just learned through doing, by having every position that we’ve had in this office,” she said. “Of course, that’s all completely changed now.”

Back in February, what were once five-day weeks and eight-hour days turned overnight into 12 hour days and seven day weeks. Monthly in-person meetings transitioned to daily Zooms, with the health agents routinely sending text messages or emails to one another at 3 a.m. They now get up at sunrise, if not earlier, and generally don’t stop working until after sunset.

A few Sundays back, they tried to take a day off, Ms. Valley said. By early morning Mr. Poole had sent an email. It couldn’t wait. The floodgates opened.

“We thought we had a sense of what urgent was, back in the day,” Mr. Poole said. “But urgent has now been redefined.”

The first inklings of the seriousness of the virus began in February, Mr. Poole said, as Vineyarders, like the Durawa family in Edgartown, arrived home from cruises and needed to quarantine. But things really started to pick up speed in mid-March, when families on the Vineyard came back from school vacation week. Just before that point, Mr. Poole and other public health leaders and town officials were faced with making what was then considered a truly gut-wrenching decision.

“I just look back on this with fascination. Cancelling the eighth grade ski trip, which is a tradition here on the Vineyard, was a huge event,” Mr. Poole said. “And now, when you look back on those events, they just seem so clear and obvious to us.”

The eighth grade ski trip has since become the bunny hill of event cancellations and public health orders, with officials deciding over the past two months to nix the Agricultural Fair, the Edgartown Fourth of July Parade, the Oak Bluffs fireworks and Beach Road Weekend — as well as virtually all other seminal summer events on the Island. They have also instituted and enforced a controversial construction moratorium and a stricter version of Gov. Charlie Baker’s statewide stay-at-home order. Mr. Poole and Ms. Valley served as catalysts for each.

Both said the toll of having to take part in those decisions and monitor cases has caused sleepless nights, as it has for the other three health agents.

Mr. Poole: “We thought we had a sense of what urgent was, back in the day. But urgent has now been redefined.” — Jeanna Shepard

“You have people who don’t think you are doing enough. You have people who think you are overstepping,” Ms. Valley said. “And I think now, you have people who are scared on two different levels: people who are scared on the health perspective, and people that are scared from the financial perspective. Trying to balance the economy with health — and people just being scared all around — is tough.”

“And it can be overwhelming,” she added.

With their different personalities and skill sets, the five health agents work in complementary ways. Mr. Poole gravitated immediately toward working on the construction moratorium. As the designated spokesman for the six boards of health, Ms. Valley has taken on the role of communicating with the press and public. Ms. Lancaster is very detail-oriented, Ms. Valley and Mr. Poole said, excellent at reading the orders that they would rather skim. Mr. Johnson and Ms. Lent have been deeply involved in contact-tracing procedures.

They all meet once a day, at 4 p.m., over Zoom. Ms. Valley and Mr. Poole said that while the past two months have presented unimaginable challenges, the ability to work in a team of five health agents and spread tasks has made it more manageable. They have no plan to stop meeting, either, knowing full well that their efforts will have to continue into the fall, and possibly beyond.

This is, after all, a pandemic.

“For awhile, it was really invigorating and rewarding, because you knew you were working really hard to do the right thing. And I predicted it would get old,” Mr. Poole said. “And it hasn’t gotten old yet. But it’s coming.”