Many in America stand on the frontlines of the effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. Some are quickly recognizable, others, like those in public health, play a less noticed, yet no less critical role. In Caldwell County, it’s the men and women at the Caldwell Health Department who are the public health arm, working to protect and improve the health in this community.
Public health examines the big picture. Every day this team works to educate residents about health issues, track communicable diseases, provide primary care and dental services, ensure residents and animals have a healthy environment, and more.
“After seven years in a hospital setting, I realized there was so much more to caring for patients than following an illness. Public Health was an avenue for me to engage with the community and develop a better understanding of health and our community,” said Assistant Health Director Jeannie Walker. “Throughout the past 24 plus years, it has been my pleasure to work with a variety of children, families, coworkers, and community partners and learn the true meaning of public health.”
The men and women who work in public health have the experience and training to test, trace, and monitor patients with communicable diseases, like COVID-19. While they have never experienced anything like the size and scope of the pandemic, these men and women were ready to step outside of their typical daily job duties to do whatever necessary to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Now school and child health nurses find themselves conducting COVID-19 testing. Health educators help man the county’s emergency operations center while communicable disease nurses identify people who may be exposed to COVID-19 and monitor patients diagnosed with the virus. The department’s clinic and lab continue to evaluate patients for symptoms of the virus. Other personnel have been assigned to take temperatures of people entering the building.
Communicable disease nurses work to protect the public by providing investigation, surveillance, and prevention activities to control communicable diseases. These nurses, along with other Health Department team members, perform contact tracing to identify individuals who may have been exposed to an illness, notifying them of the exposure and placing in quarantine, when necessary, to prevent the spread of disease or illness.
“Contact tracing can only be accomplished with help from the community,” explained Communicable Disease Nurse Chad Barr. “It requires a cooperation between public health and individuals to identify people that may have been exposed to an illness.”
Once an individual in Caldwell County has been identified with COVID-19 they are contacted by the Caldwell County Health Department for an initial interview. This discussion between the public health investigator and the patient is to help determine symptom onset dates, identify possible recent exposures, and help understand the spread of illness within the community.
“We ask questions like have you recently traveled or do you know anyone with similar symptoms? This information helps the investigator to understand the transmission of an illness or disease within a community,” said Barr.
After the initial interview, patients diagnosed with COVID-19 can expect a phone call every two days from someone with the Caldwell County Health Department. This phone call is to assess any household, dietary, or medication needs the patient may have during their illness and time of isolation.
“Many of our patients have nearby family or friends to provide for their needs, but for those who do not, we want to help meet those needs during the duration of their illness,” explained Barr.
Employees from Environmental Health and Animal Control have assisted by delivering food and other supplies to patients. Community partners, like Yokefellow of Caldwell County and MDI, have stepped up to assist the Health Department in meeting these needs.
“Yokefellow has helped immensely during this time providing food or help getting medication,” said Public Health Educator and Wellness Coordinator Taylor Lehman. “We appreciate all that Yokefellow has done, and continues to do for the community.”
Prior to COVID-19, the child health team provided nurse case management services, school nursing, and immunization tracking. Since the pandemic began, the team has been ushered to the frontlines now triaging patients by phone, screening and testing patients, maintaining records of patients who have been tested, and checking temperatures of employees and visitors entering the building.
The screening and triaging requires nursing judgement to determine if a person has signs/symptoms compatible with the virus and if testing is appropriate. Ultimately, the decision on whether or not to test lies with the medical provider, but the nurses take time to educate and reinforce hand washing, avoiding close contact with others, covering coughs and sneezes, and frequently cleaning and disinfecting surfaces.
As a group, the school nurses agreed, they all share a fear of what they could potentially bring home to their families, and they have made cleaning and disinfecting a priority. Additionally, many have school-aged children and are juggling virtual learning, mom-duties, everyday tasks, working, and self-care.
The Health Department Laboratory team is a key component of the testing process. The team processes specimens and packs them to send out to either LabCorp or the state lab. They assure results are received and clinicians are updated. They also maintain inventory of lab test kits.
Public Health Education
Health education has been providing up-to-date information and guidance about COVID-19 through frequent posts on the Health Department Facebook page and infographics. The team is also assisting with contact tracing and answering phones in the Emergency Operations Center while continuing to provide community education on a variety of topics.
“Our team has not only taken on added responsibilities, they have also adapted to alternative schedules designed to keep them safe while continuing to meet the public health needs of our community,” said Caldwell County Public Health Director Anna Martin. “I am proud of the work they have done and continue to do.”
For local information about Coronavirus, visit www.caldwellcountync.org/coronavirus-covid-19 or call the Caldwell County Health Department Health Information Line at 828-426-8456 or the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) at 828-426-8605. Resources are available in Spanish at www.caldwellcountync.org/coronavirus-covid-19/enfermedades-coronavirus-2019-respuesta-covid-19.
Photo Caption: April Hilario, a nurse with the Caldwell County Health Department, prepares to take temperatures of visitors entering the Caldwell County Health and Human Services Building.