July 26, 2021

ONE YEAR LATER: Jasper County Health Department recalls what life and work has been like in a pandemic

Working in public health during COVID-19 ‘has never been busier or more stressful’

Before the world was asked to wear multiple masks, three women in the Jasper County Health Department had no choice but to wear multiple hats.

And their masks.

In addition to their daily responsibilities, health department administrator Becky Pryor, registered nurse Kristina Winfield and assistant Melissa Gary have served as spokespersons, coordinators, investigators and distributors of both personal protective equipment and the county’s vaccine supply.

It hasn’t been easy for the county health department, which was expected to contact patients daily for case investigations and track everyone that had been exposed to a positive case near the beginning of the pandemic. With so few people, the department was challenged early on to “divide and conquer” tasks.

Other than a nurse who works as-needed for local COVID-19 clinics and immunization audits in the school districts, the health department has been accomplishing these feats nonstop with a comparatively smaller staff than other counties in the state. The work never seemed to stop.

Spending every waking moment on the pandemic was their new normal.

“We have spent numerous hours on COVID,” Pryor said. “Our work week was averaging 60-80 hours a week when we were doing all the case investigations. I still always have my phone or computer with me, I’m replying to emails and text messages often. It has never been busier or more stressful.”

Although Jasper County received COVID-19 response funds, Pryor said hiring additional temporary staff was not an easy option. Gary wasn’t even working full-time until October 2020 when the health department secretary was transferred to another department by the board of supervisors.

Meanwhile, Pryor and Winfield have been tackling the pandemic since the start. Ever since vaccine rollout became a stronger priority, the investigation work is beginning to ease up. The health department is starting to feel relief with each vaccine administered.

All three have received their vaccines and are excited to see more citizens get vaccinated, inevitably leading to looser restrictions. The health department is hopeful the vaccine will soon get approved for children, too. With more people getting vaccinated, Pryor said less cases and deaths of COVID-19 will occur.

It’s the outcome the health department has been hoping for ever since discussions surrounding the novel coronavirus began to surface. By March 2020, Jasper County reported its first case of COVID-19. Many others soon followed. Schools and businesses closed down. People quarantined.

Pryor and her team began daily contact tracing and received donations for masks, while at the same time supplying health care facilities with PPE. But the virus wasn’t going to let up nor allow the health department staff to catch their breath. In April, the first outbreaks occurred in long-term care facilities.

Around the same time, Newton Clinic had opened a tented, pop-up clinic for COVID-19 testing. This was serious, Pryor thought. The virus was escalating quickly and MercyOne Newton Medical Center was close to capacity. The county health department, she said, was planning for all the “what ifs.”

Winfield said, “I felt it got real with our first large outbreak related to an employer. It was overwhelming conducting the disease investigations and continuing with all the other needed tasks.”

Pryor added, “The worst days occurred when we had outbreaks at numerous long-term care facilities. It was sad with residents not being able to see their loved ones, but more heartbreaking when a death happened and working with the medical examiners and the funeral home.

“My heart hurt for the families, loved ones and health care works during the devastating time when everyone was overworked, exhausted from the constant mitigation measures and everyone was ready for COVID to end.”

FIRST IMPRESSIONS & EARLY PLANNING

Once the coronavirus made its way into the United States, Pryor said the health department knew it would eventually see cases in Jasper County. It was not a matter of “if,” it was a matter of “when.” Pryor felt many people were aware of this, but a small percentage were not taking it seriously.

Others believed the virus wouldn’t affect them. Lack of compliance with simple mitigation measures, such as wearing masks, was evidence enough for Pryor. Regardless, staff would continue working with businesses, schools and health care facilities on mitigation measures and emergency planning.

Preliminary meetings in February 2020 allowed the health department and the emergency management team to start planning and having conversations about the capacity and potential needs in Jasper County. Pryor said she was worried about residents and health care systems being overwhelmed.

On a normal year, the roles of county health department staff are constantly changing depending on the needs of the community and the department itself. Pryor said the health department generally serves as the hub of resources for public needs in the community.

Before the pandemic, Winfield was mostly working on immunizations, school and daycare audits, community events and partnerships and communicable disease and tuberculosis patients. Winfield also coordinated blood draws and flu clinics for county employees.

Gary was worked as a backup Home Care aide before becoming a full-time assistant in October 2020. Since then she has been learning office duties such as claims, payroll, working on logistics for vaccines and businesses in the community. Gary also attends online community meetings related to children.

Pryor is largely responsible for the Community Needs Assessment and Health Improvement Plan, community relationships, emergency management meetings and planning, grant management and health care promotion. She also works as information officer for media and has other administrative duties.

After the first case, the county health department was consumed by COVID-19.

“The unknown of the unchartered times was the absolute hardest,” Pryor said, noting the health department was also worried about the virus spreading, school closures, outbreaks and — worst of all — people getting sick and dying. Public health nurses were exhausted working seven days a week for months.

All the while trying to manage their own families and adhering their children to online learning or homeschooling. Pryor said there were many weekends where she and her staff did not leave their home office and made hundreds of phone calls in an effort to contact trace and meet state health documentations.

“Every time the computer would ‘ding’ with a notification, there was a new case, which meant more work,” Pryor said. “The work would begin by calling the case, then contact tracing and calling the contact and documenting everything. The reaction varied during case investigations.

“Then more and more people kept getting sick and spreading it to others. The case number got larger and larger, while the outbreaks were more and more. I heard a saying: The virus doesn’t move; people move the virus.

“And it was a daunting task with mitigation measures such as social distancing to stop people from moving the virus.”

COORDINATING PARTNERSHIPS

Nowadays, Jasper County Health Department is devoting a lot of energy to vaccine allocation and administration. Right now, Pryor said the department receives allocations and redistributes vaccine to community partners, while still keeping track of all the events happening related to COVID-19.

Using social media and press releases as often as it can, the health department constantly provides updated information to the public. Staff are also tracking data of COVID-19 cases, holding numerous virtual meetings and trying to keep up with changing recommendations.

The health department also held COVID-19 clinics for all five school districts in Jasper County. All of which, Pryor said, have received their second doses.

Collaborating with community entities has been prevalent since the start of the pandemic. For those people who tested positive and did not have relatives to look after them, Pryor said the health department was coordinating food delivery with Discover Hope and Jasper County Elderly Nutrition.

“We worked with law enforcement and EMS if we could not find people or if they needed recommendations for COVID-19,” Pryor said. “We also had to order PPR supplies, which were in short supply for the healthcare facilities. We worked with EMA and the National Guard for supplies and deliveries also.”

Of course, partnerships helped elevate the work of the health department and the other entities combating the pandemic. Initially, the Jasper County Emergency Operation Center was open daily.

The health department, Pryor added, received lots of support from Jim Sparks, Josh Harding and Kathy Ellis from Jasper County Emergency Management; Ryan Eaton and Susan Young from Jasper County Information Technology; Newton Fire Chief Jarrod Wellik and Newton Community Marketing Manager Danielle Rogers; and Jasper County Sheriff John Halferty and Jasper County Chief Deputy Sheriff Duane Rozendaal.

“We were coordinating with the health care coalition, which is comprise of MercyOne Newton, Newton Clinic, Prairie City and Sully Medical Clinics and all long-term care facilities,” Pryor said. “The EOC was in contact with all the EMS agencies in Jasper County.”

OTHER CHALLENGES

Pryor said the goal of the health department has always been to protect and improve the health of Jasper County. Currently, the department wants to make sure there is enough vaccine to go around, and, ideally, no new cases of COVID-19 in the community.

Getting to a point where that target seems realistically achievable took a year’s worth of other challenges to overcome. If combating the pandemic wasn’t difficult enough, the health department staff needed to pivot their efforts to help the community and long-term care facilities struggling from the aftermath of the derecho.

One long-term face facility was damaged, requiring health department staff to coordinate patient transfers. Pryor said they worked with the EOC to handle food, shelter and charging stations for those in need. The EOC monitored needs of the nursing homes that had no electricity and sustained damage.

Gary was also affected by tragedy at that time when her brother, Chris Keller, 41, of Brooklyn, died while trying to help his community after the derecho hit. Coupled with the pandemic, the health department’s future full-time assistant was given the tough task to move forward.

“I was trying to work and deal with the pandemic while my kids had daycare closures, quarantines and remote learning and homeschooling,” Gary said. “I was trying to be a mother, a teacher and an assistant. My biggest personal obstacle was the tragic and unexpected death of my brother, Chis, who as trying to restore power after the derecho.”

Within the past year, the health department was experiencing constant changes. In the middle of the pandemic, the Home Care program was eliminated, which reduced available staff.

The health department was subsequently restructured while county funding and employees designated to environmental health — Kevin Luetters, Jamie Elam and office secretary Jackie Verwers — were moved to the community development department by the board of supervisors.

Planning and zoning, animal rescue and environmental health were all consolidated to community development, too. But with the office secretary gone and the Home Care program cut, the Jasper County Board of Health approved Gary to stay on as the full-time assistant.

The loss of the office secretary put additional stress on the already tired and small health department team, forcing Pryor and Gary to take on extra duties during the pandemic. Pryor said this was one of the most challenging moments because of the lack of time and feeling overworked and overwhelmed.

Pryor credited the board of health for keeping Gary on staff to carry some of the added burden she had adopted from the office secretary position. Gary has been a “lifesaver” and has kept the office running smooth, Pryor said.

Managing COVID-19 with the schools was a challenge. Pryor said the health department was in constant contact with the superintendents, principals and school nurses. Oftentimes staff coordinated with schools for contact tracing, which Pryor said required thousands of emails and phone calls.

“We also worked though numerous scenarios and changes in recommendations about COVID,” Pryor said. “The school nurses are fantastic at each of the five school districts in Jasper County. On a positive (note), we have a great relationship with each school district, and we could not have done it without their support.”

Some of the hardest cases were for isolation and quarantine, Pryor said, and working with parents that did not like or want to listen to the recommendations.

Other times, regulation changes — which were constantly changing — would pose problems for the health department. Long-term care facility outbreaks required daily meets and a checklist to review.

The hours, too, would weigh heavy on the two nurses, who were working very long hours, seven days a week.

Winfield said, “I have been working long hours while having school-aged kids at home with remote and hybrid learning. My biggest personal obstacle was continuing to work while I had COVID.”

Sometimes staff felt their energy depleted.

“We completed the school and daycare immunization record auditors of over 6,000 Jasper County children while trying to mange the COVID,” Pryor said. “It is stressful because we are the messenger of COVID-19 recommendations.

“We don’t make the regulations; we just follow the recommendations. There were lots of moving part during the past year. The public health staff had moments of being emotionally drained from the lack of work and personal life.”

Trying to find that work-life balance and not being able to see extended family for several months has been difficult for Pryor. She also lamented when her son was sick and tested positive for COVID-19 while enrolled in college. It was hard not being able to see him, she said.

“I feel like the last year is a blur,” Pryor said.

HEALTH DEPARTMENT GIVES PROPS

Pryor gives credit to the “strong, collaborative public health team.” The three work well together, she said, and they depend on each other and use their different strengths to bring out the best in each other. They’re resilient multi-taskers. And they make things happen, Pryor said.

“We may be a small public health department, but we are doing the best we can to serve Jasper County,” she said.

Jasper County Health Department also thanks the board of health, the Jasper County Emergency Management Team, IDPH, its departments, MercyOne Newton, Newton Clinic, Medicap Pharmacy, Prairie City and Sully Medical Clinics, Hy-Vee in Newton, the long-term care facilities, the five school districts, businesses in the area, community partners and residents.

“Without the relationships with our community partners and Jasper County schools, we would have never been able to make it through the difficult situations over the past year,” Pryor said. “Last, but not least, we credit our families, especially our children, for being understanding of the demands and sacrifices to our families for our service at the Japer County Health Department.”

Gary wanted to commend Pryor and Winfield “for all of their hard work” and the sacrifices they’ve made in the past year.

“They have worked tirelessly and a lot of long hours trying to keep the Jasper County residents safe, informed and up-to-date with the latest information given out by the (IDPH) and the CDC. They are two of the hardest working women I know,” Gary said.

Pryor is looking forward to the end of the pandemic and continuing with the public health activities she was responsible for before the pandemic. The health department will be completing a Community Health Needs Assessment in 2022 in collaboration with MercyOne Newton. The two hope to focus on chronic diseases and ore preventative health in the future.

Despite the long hours, the ever-changing guidelines and a year of feeling completely overwhelmed by the pandemic Pryor maintains a positive outlook.

“I believe what has helped guide us is: faith over fear, medical information and knowledge over politics and rumors, solutions over issues, positivity more than negativity, opportunities to improve over challenges, love beats hate, the good outshines the bad, team efforts over who did what and prevention over disease,” Pryor said.

“This positive approach allows us to keep moving forward and striving to be the best public health team what we can be. We know that better days are ahead of us, when COVID is behind us. This, too, shall pass.”

Contact Christopher Braunschweig at 641-792-3121 ext. 6560 or cbraunschweig@newtondailynews.com

Christopher Braunschweig

Reporter with a strong penchant for community journalism.