March 2020, ground zero for the COVID-19 pandemic, no tests, no vaccines, no therapeutics, no actual treatments, only reports of a rapidly rising death toll from a virus invading every corner of the planet.
Two years later, on Friday, April 22, DHS Secretary-designee Karen Timberlake, on behalf of a grateful state, thanked a standing-room only audience of western Wisconsin public health care workers and their private sector partners, for their dedication, determination and compassion during an unprecedented response to the COVID-19 global pandemic.
“On behalf of Gov. Tony Evers and on behalf of all of us at the Department of Health Services, thank you,” Timberlake began.
The secretary-designee went on to highlight some of the accomplishments achieved in response to the pandemic across the state of Wisconsin.
20 million COVID tests completed
Enrolling more than 300 public school districts and more than 200 private schools in the school based testing program
Administered more than 9.4 million doses of COVID 19 vaccine including more than 2 million booster and additional doses.
Timberlake noted more than 243,000 COVID tests and more than 124,000 doses of COVID 19 vaccine have been administered in St. Croix County alone.
In addition to testing and vaccines, the state mobilized the National Guard and partnered with private staffing agencies to place more than 1300 nurses, nurses assistants and respiratory therapists in more than 175 health care settings and long term care facilities throughout the state.
Timberlake acknowledged all of those accomplishments took a toll on the health care community and its pandemic response partners.
“There have been many long nights. There have been many challenging discussions. There have been in some cases, personal insults and challenges to people’s integrity, to their professionalism, and all of that has been in the name of doing your jobs, of serving the people of the state of Wisconsin, doing what you knew needed to be done in the moment to make sure people had the information, services, resources that they needed.
“I also want to acknowledge that there has been trauma associated with this. There is grief associated with the people that we’ve lost across our state, across our communities and so while we do view this as a moment to celebrate, we can’t celebrate fully without really acknowledging what we have all been through together.
“What got us through and continues to get us through is the incredible resilience of the people in this room, the staff that you represent, the organizations that you work with, the communities that you lead,” Timberlake said.
In the wake of the pandemic’s havoc, the use of American Rescue Plan Act dollars at all levels of government to fund existing programs and create innovative new programs to combat the impacts of COVID-19 on the physical, social and behavioral health of Wisconsin's residents was critical.
Bob Rohret, St. Croix County Health and Human Services director, briefly described several new programs created at the county level to address behavioral health impacts exasperated by the pandemic.
St. Croix County now operates a co-responder program where a behavioral health professional accompanies law enforcement county-wide on calls dealing with mental health and addiction crisis events. The program currently employs one mental health professional with another hired and scheduled to join soon.
The county has implemented a community-based case management service to provide early intervention services on site at various locations throughout the county. Rohret pointed to Salvation Army’s Grace Place in New Richmond where the program addresses emergency housing issues.
A case manager has been assigned exclusively to the government center in Hudson to provide additional mental health and addiction services to support criminal justice involved persons.
“All of these efforts are designed to move upstream of crisis events, to support our residents and prevent admissions to hospital emergency departments or where jail is an outcome,” Rohert said.
The next challenge will be to secure new funding sources to sustain many of the innovative programs started with ARPA funds as a result of the pandemic. Timberlake noted that two federal block grants could play a big role in that ongoing funding solution.
“Hats off to St. Croix County for that innovation … well done. The opportunities to sustain those programs are going to be found in a couple different places.
“There is a new state budget cycle coming up. Now is the time for the leaders here in St. Croix County to be documenting what they did, the results, and getting that information to us so we can lift it up as part of our considerations in Madison. Make the case with local legislators and with the federal delegation, with our senators and congress people from the area.
“A lot of county-based mental health services and AODA services in our state are funded by two block grants, one for mental health and the other for substance abuse disorders, that we receive from the federal government’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Because paying for mental health services is this blended effort, across county, state and federal government, it is going to take advocacy at all of those levels.
“We’re happy to work with folks here to see what we can champion at the state level, but it makes a ton of sense to lift it up with our federal delegation and encourage them to advocate for more federal resources. ARPA dollars were part of what got it started, maybe there will be additional federal dollars that can sustain it. Nothing's for certain and there will be a lot of competing demands, so we’ve got to work hard,” Timberlake said.
Scottie Ard, housing navigator at Grace Place, advocated for people in need who were further exposed by the pandemic.
“We missed populations. They are veterans, seniors, children and youth, they are homeless, they are having school and drug issues. We may pass them on the street and see them in the store but we don’t see their issue. During COVID, especially during periods of isolation, it became very evident. The number of calls to law enforcement, to emergency rooms for persons who were in crisis, tripled and then quadrupled. ARDC couldn't keep up with the calls for elder abuse, neglect and fraud. It was all happening behind closed doors and none of us were able to see it,” Ard said.
The pandemic necessitated unprecedented cooperation and coordination between public and private agencies creating a model to be employed moving forward.
“It was thorough cooperation between county agencies and resources and community agencies and resources and organizations that a case would be identified and then brought through the channels in order to get assistance and in some cases it was critical relief. This is what partnerships in a community create. This is the winning relationship we all want to establish,” Ard said.