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On the front lines

Public Health department adapts, flexes as the pandemic continues

— Daily Freeman-Journal file photo Nurses, home care aides, the sanitarian and family support workers from Hamilton County Public Health were honored by the board of supervisors recently for their work during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Shelby Kroona, health department administrator, the department has been able to adapt to serve their clients during the past year.

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'” — Fred Rogers

That quote from Fred Rogers may have never rung so true as in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. And perhaps the most visible helpers were those who were the frontline heroes — those who worked to keep the community safe and healthy. One example of those helpers in Hamilton County are the staff members from public health,

Hamilton County Public Health, along with its healthcare partners across the county, has been on the front lines of the pandemic since last spring. The department has a staff of 20 people, a combination of nurses, home care aides, the sanitarian and the family support workers.

Many of the programs under the public health umbrella have changed and adapted to the unusual conditions in the year of COVID-19. The HOPES program — Healthy Opportunities for Parents to Experience Success — and the early HeadStart program have switched to a virtual format. Instead of the support workers going into people’s homes to teach parenting skills, assess growth and development, teach nutrition and other skills, those meetings are now done through Zoom video conferencing or Facebook messaging.

“It’s all been done with video chatting,” said Shelby Kroona, administrator of Hamilton County Public Health. “The staff has had to learn how to educate using the digital tools. It’s just a different mode of communication.”

The staff has had the challenge of trying to observe parent interactions via video chat, but Kroona said families are getting used to the virtual meetings.

“But I think everyone in that program, both families and the workers, are just anxious for the day they can go back to meeting in person,” she said.

Nursing staff and home care aides have continued to provide in-home services to many of the homebound clients.

“We did have to pull back from some of the homemaking duties to limit the amount of time we’re in someone’s home to limit potential exposure,” she said. At the same time, public health workers increase the kind of personal protective equipment used in the homes.

“We wear shields, masks and many pairs of gloves, and gowns if needed,” she said. “There was some impact, but that was one program that we were able to maintain.”

Back in April and May, Kroona said there were 3 or 4 staff members who spent about a quarter of their time working on COVID-19 testing and contact tracing. Over the summer months, with the number of cases rising across the county, she said all of her staff became familiar with those procedures.

“All of them can participate in testing now,” she said.

Public health workers have put in extra hours working on contact tracing. Contact tracers reach out to let people know they may have been exposed to COVID-19, help them get tested and ask the person to self isolate. During the month of November to December, her staff logged 250 hours just in COVID testing, tracing and planning for the vaccines.

“That’s been pretty consistent this fall — anywhere from 150 to 250 hours on those tasks,” according to Kroona.

Her staff, working with other health care organizations throughout the county, have been nimble and ready to shift directions as guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed.

“Nothing really prepared us for this pandemic,” she said. “Back in 2009, there was the H1N1 virus. We learned some lessons moving through that flu epidemic.

“But this is far greater than that with all of the testing and the changes. Everyday there is something new, some policy has changed or guidance from the CDC has changed,” she said.

As the vaccine for COVID-19 becomes more readily available, Kroona said her staff will be ready to administer the vaccine to all who wish to receive it.

“We’re planning to do what we call ‘closed pods,’ which means a business or a career type – like teachers or firefighters – groups of people we can categorize,” she said. When the vaccine is available, those groups will be contacted with specific details on where and when the shots will be provided.

Kroona said the health department will also be looking to its community partners such as area clinics and pharmacies, to help begin vaccinating the 75 and older population when the shots are available.

“The health department will also have open vaccine clinics also,” she said. “It’s going to take a lot of people working together in the community to get as many people vaccinated that we need to.”

Kroona said her staff deserves much credit for their willingness to do what was necessary during the pandemic.

“I have just the best staff. They are so willing to jump and do whatever is needed,” she said. “Saying ‘thank you’ just doesn’t seem like enough. This has been a year where people have really come together for our community.”

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