People have a misunderstanding about what public health does. When a local health department is doing something right, you will never notice. That is the environment we strive to create for all our residents and visitors. Local public health promotes prevention and works at protecting all those in our county.
COVID-19 caused many people to start doing things that no one could have predicted. Shortages of cleaning supplies were understandable, but toilet paper?
The Dallas County Health Department has had an emergency response plan since 2003 and a pandemic plan since 2009. We were ready for the coming of the next pandemic, but we had no idea that we would be dealing with social media, mass media and all the misinformation that was started. That was our Achilles’ heel.
Local health departments had started monitoring the coronavirus situation in China before the holidays. Regionally we had discussions regularly at our meetings. At that point, we had not expended any funds on COVID-19. Even though Missouri didn’t see its first cases until March, we were staying on top of the situation.
When the Dallas County Health Department was notified of the county’s first case, it was 5 a.m. Did you know that someone is on call 24 hours a day at every local health department in Missouri?
When we got that call on April 6, it was immediately the job of every person in our office to drop everything and get to work. The phones, faxes, texts, Facebook posts and messages were overwhelming. We were accused of withholding information because we had people demanding information, which because of privacy and confidentiality, could not be released. People were demanding to know where this person had been shopping. We knew that in this small community, if we told information about a particular store, day and time, there was no preventing a store employee from pulling up surveillance and then telling people who was in the store at that time. In a small community, we cannot take the chance of having a person recognized and named by a third party; worse than that would be that someone names the wrong person.
We were so fortunate that our first case was one that we could immediately tie to an outbreak in Springfield, and it helped that we knew the person and their family. Their cooperation was greatly appreciated.
Local health departments had to start diverting employees from their regular work duties to COVID-related duties. In March, this staffing diversion cost $17,780.67 and in April, $18,395.76. That doesn’t include the increased use of office equipment, postage and supplies. In that first and second month, the Dallas County Health Department was going through almost a ream of paper a day in its fax machine, and our document shredder has to be emptied several times a week.
We’ve provided thermometers, gloves and other supplies to local agencies that were providing services during this unprecedented time.
We still participate in three to six conference calls every week, daily updates from Gov. Mike Parson and updating our social media page daily if not more often. We have a written recovery plan, and we have measures ready to put in place, if we see an outbreak in Dallas County.
From Aug. 1, 2019, to Dec. 31, 2019, we received 652 phone calls (not including faxes). Since Jan. 1, 2020, to May 11, 2020, we have received 4,010 phone calls (not including faxes). There is rarely an evening that local staff isn’t in touch with one another after hours. Someone still goes into the office on weekends just to pull faxes.
There were a lot of tears at the end of the day for many weeks. People would call up staff and abuse them verbally over the phone. They would tattletale on a business that they thought wasn’t doing something right and needed to be closed. They also started bashing us on social media, demanding testing that we can’t do because we don’t have a physician or nurse practitioner on staff. We had to close our offices to walk-in clients. We had to start mailing out WIC checks to participants so they didn’t come into the office. We were threatened with lawsuits, as were many health departments in this region. When the governor shut down non-essential businesses and closed restaurant dining rooms, local health departments went to those food establishments in person. We had calls saying we needed to close day cares. We would get calls saying we were infringing on their rights because we were telling people to stay at home. We got calls from angry parents wanting schools closed (before mandatory), and then when they did close, we got calls wanting us to reopen schools.
Now that we are reopening Missouri, the calls haven’t slowed down. People wanting guidance and information about businesses and churches reopening, guidance about masks, guidance about outdoor activities, guidance about occupancy or about just about anything. The thing that we all need to take away from this event, is that we all need to be prepared. This is not going away soon. We will see more cases in our county, but rest assured your local Dallas County Health Department will be vigilant every hour of every day. When a vaccine becomes available, local health departments will be ready. When testing equipment is available to purchase, local health departments hope to receive funds for purchases. Health departments will still promote handwashing and mitigation activities to prevent the spread of all communicable diseases.
But local health departments can’t do this alone. It takes everyone doing their part.