“We are going to briefly discuss the last three years as St. Croix County engaged in the COVID response,” Kelli Engen, public health administrator said. The county public health officials performed an impossible task – boil down the last three years of an unprecedented pandemic into a 30 minute presentation at the April 4 St. Croix County Board of Supervisors meeting.
The response began in 2020 when the pandemic hit Wisconsin.
In 2021, “we were at a point in the response where our numbers were absolutely crazy,” Engen said. “We couldn’t hire enough people to keep up with our response and we didn’t and we recognized that. And we said, ‘we’re never going to hire our way out of this pandemic.’”
Now, the department has laid off all but two of its limited term employees. Those two staff still have enough work and enough COVID-19 cases to keep them busy.
Things have finally begun to get back to how they were pre-pandemic, Engen said.
The St. Croix County epidemiologist Elle Klasen, who was hired as a result of the pandemic, laid out the the tenets of response for any communicable disease, in which the county used throughout the last three years:
Providing equitable access to health.
Engaging with community.
Guiding and supporting.
Assuring vaccinations and testing. In 2021, the county provided 10,130 vaccinations and held 77 clinics. In 2022, the county provided 577 vaccinations and held 51 clinics.
“An understanding of disease investigation was turned on its head with COVID-19. This was a whole new process for us and a new response,” Klasen said.
A huge part of any response is communication and the numbers proved it was a significant portion of the workload. There were,
6,600 phone calls received from the public to the St. Croix County COVID-19 line.
7,200 emails from the public to the St. Croix County COVID-19 email account.
20,985 St. Croix County positive case residents spoke with St. Croix County Public Health on symptoms, guidance and prevention of spread.
737,140 views of the COVID-19 data dashboard from December 2020 through December 2022.
7,342 individuals contacted through electronic alert.
“Communication is an art and if you think you’ve perfected it, you’re wrong,” Engen said. “Sometimes we would get guidance in the morning and it would change by 5 p.m. the next day. That was a hard message to communicate with our partners.”
For all that went well, there were lots that could have gone better, and the public health representatives were transparent about that.
The public health department surveyed their staff and came up with three top strengths and three top gaps in their response throughout the pandemic.
Relationships and communication with partners.
Communication with staff.
Incident command system.
Local public health departments bore the brunt of the pandemic response and local health department infrastructure was challenged.
The public had limited understanding of the broader role of public health departments and deep political divides throughout the nation impacted public health workers and influenced response strategies.
The county is better prepared for future pandemic emergencies, but work still needs to be done to strengthen local health departments. The public health workforce was depleted as a result of stressors associated with the pandemic and public anger directed toward public health workers.
The addition of an epidemiologist to the public health department and the work performed by the public information officer were invaluable assets.
While there is always a need to reflect on unprecedented public health emergency events to learn and improve future response, the public health department reacted to the fluid and rapidly changing dynamics associated with this pandemic. The county response was based on the evolving scientific understanding of the virus and guidance from the Wisconsin Department of Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other national research.
Supervisor Paul Berning asked how the public health department could address paring down on the other side of the pandemic response to account for the financial impact it has on the county.
Supervisor Mark Carlson asked about the MRNA vaccine side effects and what the department is doing to address those fears. Are they warranted?
“Vaccines since they were invented have always been challenging,” Klasen said. “It’s always challenging to look at a healthy human or a healthy baby and give them a shot.”
The COVID-19 vaccine was studied for multiple years prior to it being released to the public, she said. All vaccine studies and recommendations come from federal agencies, where the county is not involved.
Engen became emotional as she said she delayed her son’s vaccine after seeing a study about the vaccines and myocarditis. As a mom, those decisions during the pandemic were hard.
Her son is now vaccinated.
Supervisor Shawn Anderson asked about the study addressing mask efficacy and what the current county recommendations are.
Klasen said the county is still following CDC guidelines, recommending masks based on positivity rates and hospital capacity.
The study, Klasen said, does say that masks are not created equal. It does not say they are completely useless. N95 masks, used in hospitals, are very effective against the virus.
“What we do know is if you properly wear an N95… that will reduce your risk,” Klasen.
Government center expansion update
The government center expansion plan is hovering right around the predicted costs, but there are still a few years left to go in the execution.
Bid packet’s continue to roll out, but this next one is being adjusted to accommodate small business bonding.
“We’re going to break that down a little bit,” Kurt Schleicher, project manager with Samuels Group who is working on the expansion, said. “That way we give more opportunities to our small businesses to get a chance to bid.”
The county borrowed $80 million for the project to expand its Hudson location, which was directly invested. So far, they have grown those assets by $790,000, according to County Administrator Ken Witt. These continued investment earnings will give a $2 to $3 million buffer zone in the $80 million project, but they are expected to come up right around budget.
Additionally, there was $5 million worth of contingency costs worked into the budget. If there are no unexpected or unaccounted for costs, that $5 million could easily be spared and bring the overall cost down to $75 million.
Those saved $5 million bonded monies will need to be spent on the project, so Witt said things that were previously removed from the plans could be reconsidered – like the road connecting to Vine Street, solar panels or finishing the health and wellness clinic.
“We do have to use the $80 on the government center project,” Witt said. “Check back with me in 2025 and I’ll give you the real number.”
Chuck Myers was appointed and confirmed as the county finance director. Myers brings decades of financial experience and leading finance teams. He is scheduled to begin on April 24.
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― Mark Twain
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