JEFFERSON — The Jefferson County Health Department already was going full tilt before the coronavirus pandemic and then the “Safer-at-Home” order when the state Supreme Court decided businesses could reopen.
Now, with the businesses unlocking their doors, it is being taxed to the limit, with longtime Director Gail Scott, who was eyeing retirement, currently working 80 hours a week.
“When ‘Safer-at-Home’ was in place, it was clear what activities and businesses were allowed to operate,” Scott said. “After the Supreme Court decision, we received a lot of phone calls from people asking us what to do and for guidelines on how to keep operating safely.”
She said some people contacted the Health Department asking for its staff to issue a similar order and keep things closed, and others requested the opposite.
“A few were asking us not to issue an order, and after many hours of consultation, it was decided that we would not issue an order, as it was probably not enforceable,” Scott recalled. “We were contacted by many organizations, businesses and schools who wanted to make sure they took actions to keep everyone safe from the virus.”
She said that, despite demands on her staff members, they are rising to the challenges presented by COVID-19.
“While this has been an unprecedented time for public health, we are all dedicated to our profession and jobs,” Scott said. “I have an awesome staff whose members are working very hard to try to stop the spread of the virus. We are a seven-day-a-week operation now.”
Scott said she tries to give her staff members two days off in a row, but she sees her health team pulling together to get the job done.
“We have virtual meetings, and it is obvious the support they have for each other and how much they care about each other and the people we serve,” Scott said. “It is very tiring, hard work, but my team has risen to the challenge.”
She noted that her staff members are worried they are not serving the needs in the areas in which they had to pull back, or shut down, services, such as maternal and child health, parenting, home visits, mental health and addiction treatment and immunizations.
“They are concerned people are falling through the cracks,” Scott said. “Even before the pandemic, public health was chronically underfunded throughout the State of Wisconsin and nationally. Resources are strained during normal operations and have been further challenged during the pandemic. We are hoping to get more funding through the state to accomplish what we need to do for the pandemic, as well as start to bring back our normal services. This is very important to everyone at the Health Department.”
Miraculously, no Jefferson County Health Department staff member has tested positive for COVID-19.
“Most of my staff is able to work from home and, when in the office, many precautions are taken, such as physical distancing and cleaning,” Scott said.
The Jefferson County Health Department’s staff is comprised of a director/registered dietitian, registered dietitian, dietetic technician and clerk. Working under Scott are two clerical employees in the main office, a director/health officer, public health program manager and six public health nurses.
“The main office staff are working at the office answering phones and doing their other duties, such as budget management, payroll and helping with data entry for COVID investigations,” Scott said. “One of the nurses works in the office and does mental health nursing for Jefferson County Human Services, the Childhood Lead Program follow-up and Head Start nursing. Another nurse is working on a Drug-Free Communities Grant. All other nurses are working on case investigations for COVID.”
The county has contracted with two additional people — a registered nurse to coordinate activities with its long-term care facilities and to do contact tracing, and a social media and data person, who is also trained to do contact tracing.
“We have four medical students who are volunteering to do contact tracing and we have had help from four Fort HealthCare registered nurses to do contact tracing, when they can. But, as I said before, some services have been put on hold and we hope to get them started again soon,” Scott said.
Scott has been working seven days a week since March 9.
“I work about 12 hours a day,” she said. “The night the Supreme Court decision was made, I put in 16 hours, working with administration on response. So pre- and post-decision, I am still putting in 75 to 80 hours a week.”
She said that as director and health officer, she needs to continue to be a resource to the community and to monitor the pandemic to see what needs to get done.
“Since I am working from home, the commute is short and I tend to just keep working, as the work never ends,” Scott said. “That’s pretty much the life of any health officer right now.”
So if, or when, will Scott burn out?
“I won’t, but I am afraid my cell phone will,” she said with a laugh. “My main concern is the effect this has on all in the community. It’s been hard for everyone. We are so used to being active and social. It’s very hard not to see family and friends. It’s extremely hard on those who lost their income or jobs. Many people are weary and just want life to return back to normal.”
Scott said for her, the coronavirus has been a bit surreal.
“I’ve trained my whole career for a pandemic and now it’s here,” she said. “I have great support from Jefferson County Administrator Ben Wehmeier, Emergency Management Director Donna Haugom and other department heads — and my team, that I’ve nicknamed ‘The Dream Team.’”
Scott said she is thankful for the help she has received from various sources. Her department is working closely with Fort HealthCare, which she said has been great in assisting her with testing and other duties. The county Health Department just has received word that it will receive CARES Act dollars for local planning grants, to the tune of $30,000, to update the county pandemic plan and to plan for what the community will need and ways to respond. The plan elements will include testing, contact tracing, communications, partnerships, mass vaccination plans and data/metrics.
Also in the pipeline will be testing coordination funding.
Scott said local health departments are the public health strategists in the community when it comes to testing, including working with the Wisconsin National Guard on community testing, skilled nursing-facility testing, working with employers, doing testing during outbreaks, and coordination with local hospitals and providers.
“This is something we are currently doing, but now we will have funding to keep on getting all who need to be tested a place to have it done,” Scott said. “This includes making sure there are testing supplies, personal protective equipment and resources to assist with filling out forms. Then there is the testing and data entry and, finally, getting the results to the patients and case management and contact tracing of people who have a positive test.”
Funds also will be coming for contact tracing of COVID-19.
“We can either hire staff locally, or work with state hired staff,” she said. “Many of these interviews take hours and, depending on the number of contacts, take a long time. But we want to be thorough and make sure all are protected.”
Scott said that with the Supreme Court’s decision to allow businesses to reopen gradually, her main concern is that people will think the virus is not a threat, when it still is.
“I hope people continue to take precautions and, if we see an increase in cases, be willing to take action to minimize spread,” she said. “The other important thing is, if my staff calls, that people answer the phone and know they will be treated with respect and their information will not be shared. My staff’s goal is to help people get through this, answer their questions and stop the spread.”
Scott said she wants the public to know that many people are working together on the COVID-19 response.
“We have external and internal emergency operations center meetings and meetings with municipalities, schools, park and recreation departments, nonprofits, businesses and more,” she said. “A lot of people in Jefferson County care and want to do the right thing.”
Many outside of public health also are working long hours to do what they need to do to minimize the impact of the virus on the community.
“The health officers around the state meet almost every day with the state Department of Health Services to share information,” Scott said. “We are all happy to assist the public if they have questions. I urge people to get information from credible sources, such as the Department of Health Services or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. We want people to stay informed and stay well.”