Marina Lent hadn’t had a day off since March 2020.

In that time, the Chilmark health agent had kept busy, creating a contact tracing program, working with translators, encouraging vaccinations, collaborating with the school nurses — and in her down time, reading up on the latest scientific papers published about the virus.

Ms. Lent with her companion Kira. — Jeanna Shepard

But 459 days into the pandemic — or about two weeks ago — as the Island enjoyed its first case dip in months, she finally had a chance to focus on something else.

“I just sat and listened to the birds,” said Ms. Lent, poised at a shady picnic table outside the Chilmark town hall on a breezy morning, her dog Kira nestled at her feet.

“I love waking up really early when it’s dark and quiet. I’ve learned to just sit and enjoy the feeling of listening to birds,” Ms. Lent said, running through her other day-off activities, which included trimming her forsythia bush and building a birch wood desk from scratch.

She also squeezed in some time to paint banners for a Covid vaccine clinic at the Chilmark Community Center and zoomed into a meeting about the levels of cyanobacteria in the Island ponds — but those were just for fun.

Ms. Lent, who has served as the Chilmark health agent since 2008, has quickly become a familiar and essential member of the Island health and safety network, as a raging pandemic has cast health agents and public health experts, especially at the local level, into leading community roles this past year.

Ms. Lent is perhaps best known in her latest capacity as the Island’s lead contract tracing coordinator. For others,

she is most familiar as the steady voice on the other side of a challenging phone conversation, crisp and direct as she guides Islanders through the ins and outs of a positive virus test.

“You have to have a very fine touch, contact tracing is not for everybody,” she said, describing the work as a sort of amalgamation of therapist and detective, guide and friend.

“You really have to have a sense of who will respond to a little bit of joking, or when to put forward information you know about them and their social contacts, or how to respond, as a contact tracer, when you have a darn good idea you’re being lied to,” she said, pausing for a moment. “People are so different and you’re trying to gain their trust, but they have very different ideologies and life beliefs.”

Since the pandemic began, Ms. Lent has been building the Island’s highly-coordinated and well-oiled Island contact tracing program from the ground up, navigating uncharted waters and often bucking state guidance over recording cases by residential town and not tracing visitors, to make the program more reliable.

“The coordinator job is something we made up — we made up our contact tracing system for the Island,” she said. Ms. Lent shares the position with nurse Betsy VanLandingham, though she hesitates to take credit for the success of the program, citing groups like the Community Ambassador Program (CAP) and her staunch group of tracing volunteers as essential to the effort.

“As a coordinator, you’re kind of like a conductor of an orchestra. The conductor isn’t making any noise, but without the conductor, the orchestra has a hard time playing a coherent song, it doesn’t come together,” said Ms. Lent, whose sunny demeanor and affability belie her claims that she is an introvert.

And despite a natural affinity for the field, public health was not always the plan for Ms. Lent, whose lengthy resume speak to her wide-ranging knowledge and insatiable curiosity.

She grew up in New York city, the daughter of a German mother and American father, but experienced something of a nomadic childhood, bouncing from city to country — Washington D.C., Munich, Germany and Rome, to name a few — for her father’s work with the broadcasting company Voice of America.

She attended Swarthmore College, where she studied philosophy, ancient Greek and German literature, and went on to Johns Hopkins to study international economics. “I was going to figure out why the monetary system creates world poverty,” she recalled. But her path never stayed the same for long.

From a career at the United Nations to small-town health agent, Ms. Lent has found her perfect match in the eclectic Island way of life. — Jeanna Shepard

Guided by an interest in activism and social justice, and a rapacious appetite for knowledge, she spent a career organizing anti-war demonstrations for the War Resistance League, working for the West Germany Green Party and the environmental NGO Greenpeace, before eventually landing her dream job working at the United Nations.

But life is rarely static.

“I found myself in the depths of a midlife crisis in New York and I decided, it doesn’t matter why I’m miserable, it matters that I’m miserable,” she reflected. “You have to allow yourself the flexibility to let your dreams change, because they do.”

In 1998, Ms. Lent came to the Island, where her sister had been living, to try something new. And soon, after years of uprooting and moving, the Island’s steady pace and tight-knit community stole her heart.

“I took a leave of absence from the UN, I came here, took an EMT class, got on my first ambulance run with Jeff Pratt on Lambert’s Cove Road for a skateboarding accident and that was it, I never looked back,” she said. Now she calls the Island her Cinderella slipper, a perfect fit.

“I belong in a small community, I’ve been thriving here and all you have to give up is your job, your pension, your apartment and you get to be happy,” she laughed.

After a few years working odd jobs on the Island — as an Oak Bluffs EMT, a landscaper and a painter — she took her current position in the board of health and settled into a job that matched her bottomless capacity to learn and to master.

“The more you get to know about public health, the more interesting it is because it has this enormous scope of issues too big, essentially, for real professional coverage by one person,” she said. “I’m an administrative assistant, but I’m having the time of my life.”

That passion is still palpable over a decade later, as Ms. Lent describes the numerous initiatives — or obsessions, as she calls them — that she has accomplished, including work on disaster preparedness and climate change, healthy eating campaign, a brief stint researching tiny houses, and serendipitously, an interest in infectious disease.

Her work on the board, and in her jobs before it, have informed her time as a contact tracer, she said.

“I have worked at either the UN or Greenpeace or the Green Party — it’s all politics, and understanding how collective decisions are made. When you look at the Island [in Covid], it’s dealing with the identity of the different towns,” she said.

Even now as the pandemic ebbs, Ms. Lent has no intention of slowing down, citing numerous projects that lie ahead. She said she also hoped to apply lessons from the virus to future work, beginning with a plan to encourage Islandwide collaboration between the boards of health, as the community faces a flurry of public health issues coming down the pike, from septic system capacity to tick-borne illness.

There’s also retirement in the distant future, she conceded, but even then its unlikely she’ll stay very far away from the action with so many opportunities to volunteer and pastimes to take up.

Perhaps with one exception — to listen to the birds.

“My main goal in life is not to be bored,” Ms. Lent said with a smile. “Boredom is the eighth deadly sin.”