Jason Akl ’99 is standing near his truck parked in front of the Ashland Baking Company on Chapple Avenue ready for his interview. He’s wearing winter wear over his suit, talking to a coworker at Northlakes Community Clinic where he is the CEO. It’s single digits, a pandemic, and the clinic just started dispensing vaccinations this morning. In other words, there’s stuff to talk about.
Jason, who is from Mississauga, Ontario, came to Northland to play basketball. He studied biology and chemistry and went to graduate school at Florida International University in Miami for Medical Lab Science and Immunology.
City life had never appealed to him—and Miami was no different. So, he returned to Ashland after grad school ready to do whatever he needed to live here. As it turns out, he found a job in a lab at Main Street Clinic, working alongside Dr. Andy Matheus ’85—and helped coach basketball for Northland.
In 2009, Jason was hired as the clinic manager and a year or so later become the chief operating officer for Northlakes Community Clinic. An upstart clinic, NorthLakes started with one location in 2009 and has grown to fourteen clinics in twelve communities. Add to that, the clinic runs Wisconsin’s largest geographic Seal-a-Smile school-based dental program. In all, NorthLakes serves over 25,000 patients plus another 15,000 outreach patients.
As someone with a background in immunology, the SARS-COV 2 did not surprise Jason nor did it slow him down. “HIV taught us a lot, Ebola missed us,” he said. “But the world was ripe for a pandemic.”
He said the clinics were situated to pivot—and quickly. They secured personal protection equipment and fogging equipment used to clean rooms, and they booted up telehealth services. The challenge was to implement safety systems while communicating with patients.
“A year later—it was a difficult year, yes—but a year later, we’re in a really good place. We can carry out COVID-19 PCR testing, curbside antigen testing—and we started giving vaccines this week.”
As a clinical consultant for Health Resources and Services Administration Operational Site Visits, Jason is well aware of the nationwide devastation brought on by COVID-19. While northern Wisconsin has fared relatively well in regards to COVID-19-related deaths, he said he’s talking to colleagues around the country who are struggling with significantly more cases and losses.
COVID-19 will never go away completely, and, in the same way that HIV changed medicine thirty years ago by heightening precautions around bloodborne pathogens and changing the requirements for barrier protection, Jason said COVID-19 has done the same for our understanding of airborne transmission and disinfection practices. For instance, masking practices will likely become the new standard, along with face shields, and using antiseptics on all surfaces.
The past year has also shown that telehealth works. “It’s been something patients have been asking for and healthcare has been resisting,” he said. “COVID-19 forced us out of our comfort zone.”