Public Health Emergency Preparedness and COVID-19

by Dennis Kriesel, Executive Director of the Kansas Association of Local Health Departments. This article originally appeared in the June 2020 County Comment newsletter.

The purpose of Public Health Emergency Preparedness (PHEP) is to ready our state and counties for a host of public health emergencies. These range from natural disasters (e.g., floods and tornados), bioterrorism, and the most recent test of our capabilities: pandemics. COVID-19 has put state and local governments to the test on a variety of fronts, and public health is at the forefront in combating the disease.

The good news is a lot of preliminary work the counties have been doing via the PHEP program has paid dividends when it comes to the COVID-19 response. Two such counties that demonstrate this are Reno and Crawford.

In Reno County, the arrival of COVID-19 resulted in providing public information. Reno developed consistent messaging based around guidance from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE). This was deemed a critical step to combat misinformation circulating via social media. Reno also established two new ways for the public to ask questions. One was the establishment of a COVID-19 hotline; staffed by employees of the Reno County Health Department. This hotline allowed individuals to call in with questions, verify information, and address reports of violations of the various isolation and quarantine mandates that were put in place. The other step was the creation of a live chatline for questions. Additionally, planning actions and striving toward transparency to provide as accurate information as possible led to the formulation of a COVID-19 digital dashboard that is public facing and is updated daily, offering the most up-to-date metrics for Reno County constituents.

Reno County identified a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect all the community’s healthcare workers and first responders. Given funding was not readily available for additional PPE purchases, Reno decided to get creative. A local brewery started to produce hand sanitizer and donated several half-gallon jugs to Reno County Emergency Management, which then distributed the sanitizer to facilities that submitted requests. Groups were approached to sew face masks for healthcare workers in the county, collectively forming what became known as the Sewing Angels of Reno County. Over 1,700 masks were produced. A donation request was put forth to the community, and many citizens stepped up to provide gloves, N95 masks, face shields, and barrier gowns.

A lot of these collaborations were possible because community relationships had already been established in Reno County via the PHEP work that happens every year. Crawford County tells of similar success.

Since COVID-19 reached Kansas the Crawford County Health Department has worked diligently to respond to the pandemic and prevent the disease’s spread. The Crawford County Sheriff’s Department provided a trailer to the health department to serve as an onsite testing unit. The trailer allows a place to collect patient test samples without risking exposure inside the health department’s permanent structure. Crawford not only tests for COVID-19 but also screens their patients for Influenza A/B and strep first to rule those conditions out.

Crawford County’s health department, sheriff’s department, and emergency manager worked with the county’s local emergency planning committee to identify a solution after a homeless resident was tested for COVID-19 in an emergency room but had no home to self-isolate in. Crawford County was able to establish a process to provide isolated living shelters should positive cases present in the homeless community via an isolation/quarantine tent at the local health department. One tent was set up initially but Crawford has the capability to erect more as needed. The shelter system can be monitored with a sheriff deputy who can be based in a recreational vehicle to stay separated from the cases. Each such shelter is provided with a cot, foldable chair, sleeping bag, trash can, roll of paper towels, toothbrush/toothpaste, wipes, blanket, pillow, comb, mask, and an educational packet with information on COVID-19 and mental health resources.

Crawford County’s health department has worked with Westley House, a local food bank and homeless shelter, to provide transportation between the emergency room and the health department should anyone need to use the shelter. Wesley House also agreed to provide food for all those staying at the shelter. The shelter has access to a portable toilet, a team of epidemiology nurses are available onsite to assist with symptom monitoring, and any individuals using the shelter will have access to a phone, showers, laundry services, and supplies such as thermometers to self-monitor their symptoms.

Both Crawford and Reno demonstrate the importance of community collaboration and teamwork in the face of an emergency. Their efforts under PHEP were designed to prepare them for a situation like COVID-19. While the coronavirus is straining resources across the board it is good to know such preparedness efforts can make a major difference.