VAN WERT, OH. March 16, 2022 ― It was March 26, 2020, when Van Wert County recorded its first COVID-19 case. The Van Wert County General Health District then sprang into action.
“We urgently met the afternoon when the first case was confirmed,” said Dr. Paul Kalogerou, Health Commissioner of the Van Wert County Health Department. “Immediately, our emergency preparedness went into effect and our pandemic response plan was executed. We were able to bring in the Emergency Management Agency to work with us. The measures that have been effective in previous pandemics were implemented.”
Kathy Will, nursing director at the health department and staff, began the contact tracing process and measures to help minimize the effect of the virus. The health department staff had to not only work on helping to fight COVID-19 in our community but also continue in their own work areas.
“We were able to maintain service throughout the whole pandemic, which I think was a big asset to our maintaining those programs for the community and for the financial stability within the health department,” Will said. “We dedicated certain staff to doing the contact tracing, the phone calls and that preserved the rest of the health department activities that were going on.”
Rick McCoy, director of the Van Wert County Emergency Management Agency, recognized this wasn’t going to be over quickly.
“Knowing that this was probably going to last a while, we had to do some thinking on how to prioritize a lot of time to COVID,” McCoy said. “With the other things still going on and then bringing individuals together, that was the big thing and that happens on any disaster when you’re opening your emergency operations center and of course, we did that here.”
Jeanette Konz, administrator for the health department said they could see cases rising elsewhere and were aware it was likely coming to Van Wert County.
“Since this was kind of an evolving event, we were actually able to open our incident command internally prior to our first case so we were a little more prepared and ready for it,” Konz said.
The Ohio Department of Health proved to be a valuable asset in preparing for an increase in cases early on in the pandemic.
“The state was instrumental in getting us equipment, masks, gowns, gloves, PPE, not only for ourselves but for people in the community,” Will said. “EMA (Emergency Management Agency) was able to order and then we were the supply recipient within the county and then those were distributed to those agencies that needed it so the state was very helpful in that.”
Communications proved to be a key factor in coordinating a response.
“We were doing conference calls with the 88 directors in Ohio at least several times a week so that we were getting updates on what was known about the virus, how we should respond across the state and of course the big thing became PPE or personal protective equipment, how to get that. Fortunately, we had some stockpiled in the county for such an event like this but knowing that we were going to go through that quickly,” McCoy said.
The health department was well-versed on what to do in case of a pandemic.
“We’d actually have drills and prepare and walk through the actions of the various responsibilities. So when this came to our county, we were able to put in our pandemic response…we were ready. Those drills were primarily for a short epidemic, three or four days, but this was obviously much longer and challenged us all,” Dr. Kalogerou said.
McCoy says that Van Wert County was out in front when it came to planning for the pandemic.
“We were actually ahead of the Northwestern Ohio Consortium. When they came together a number of years ago and started putting things together, they were actually looking at what we had done here so that pre-planning was very important,” McCoy said.
One thing that has come out of the pandemic is an appreciation for the volunteers that helped at the health department from doing anything from answering the phones to administering vaccination.
“I think our biggest asset that we gained through the whole pandemic was our volunteers,” Will said. “We have tremendous volunteers. We couldn’t have fully accomplished anything that we did without those volunteers from answering the phones to helping organize clinics. Today they’re still coming in, filing, sorting and helping with clinics. We couldn’t do it without them. Those volunteers have made a big, big difference.”
Until the pandemic hit, many people might not have known what the health department did in the community.
“It’s kind of pushed us out there a little bit more into the light and so hopefully this will help some people come to us for information or that we would become more of a resource within the community,” Konz said.
But not everybody agreed with the role the health department played in slowing the spread of COVID-19. Some chose not to get vaccinated or wear a mask.
“Our role has always been to inform the public of the responsible data out there that’s available to them, to the measures that work that stop this virus, to slow its spread and to minimize disease and deaths. Our job is to continue to inform and be a resource for the community, for businesses, for healthcare partners, for educators, students and families. We’ll continue to empower the public to make responsible and sensible decisions about their health. Each person has their own choice of how he or she is going to manage this but we know our role is to help people protect themselves, inform them to prevent disease and to minimize the risk of acquiring the disease,” Dr. Kalogerou said.
“Even in the schools, we worked really hard to just inform and get the information to superintendents and educators. We’ve learned that you can’t mandate but we can educate. You can inform but it is something that each individual has their right to decide what they’re going to do so that was kind of difficult because we thought whatever we said they would do and we found that that was not always the case,” Will said.
One thing that Will learned through all of this is next time they should bring in the volunteers sooner.
“We just thought we could handle it all. We thought it was going to end soon but once we implemented the use of the volunteers it really lightened the load,” Will said.
Konz says she would change how they dealt with the effects of stress on the health department staff.
“I agree with Kathy and instituting some of that sooner and maybe even looking back at our own staff and the stress that they were under. We did bring in a group to kind of help us debrief and to help us get through some of the stress and maybe we should have started that in the beginning. You know, helping to encourage to keep staff going because there was a lot of burnout and a lot of stress,” Konz said.
McCoy believes the coordinated efforts played out as planned.
“I don’t think I would change much. I think everybody came together. All of our key officials came together as we had always planned and we all discussed what we felt was best for the community. We tried to get information out and I think that’s the big thing of keeping the public informed as much as we can with as much reliable information as we can. I think locally, we tried to give as much information as possible and that’s the key thing that communication has to be going back and forth, that we’re listening to the public, the public is listening to us and I don’t think I would change that at all,” McCoy said.