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A Year in A Bottle with the Health Department

By Chuck Clegg - | Jul 21, 2021

In my series of articles I have asked three individuals about their thoughts on the year 2020. The first, a school administrator. Secondly, the mayor of the community of Hundred. And the third, is a member of the state government, a House of Delegate member. Each of them had differing views of the year from different perspectives, based on their careers, families and themselves. I decided for this column I would ask not an individual, but an organization that was on the front lines of the biggest health crisis in generations.

The Wetzel Tyler Health Department is part of the West Virginia Health and Human Services Department, DHHR. If I were to ask local citizens what the job of the Health Department is, they might say, they give food service classes, test drinking water and inspect septic systems. The department provides information about children’s vaccinations. And if I asked, do they have a part to play in the event of a pandemic, you would probably answer, you figured they did. Fact is, most of us hadn’t given much thought to the health department before last year.

The truth is, when the pandemic arrived locally, the four people who made up the department were caught in a tidal wave of responsibilities and public expectations. With no idea of the many challenges they would face, the health department with the help of Office of Emergency Management (OEM) from Tyler, and Wetzel County went to work for the citizens of the counties. This is their story told by them. This week is about the beginning when Coivd-19 first arrived in our communities and the battle to defeat the virus began.

Tyler & Wetzel County Health Department (WTHD), Karen Cain, RN. Public health is a service that routinely goes unnoticed, that is until a large incident occurs that has a major impact on the community. It is essential and works collaboratively with many entities within a community to maintain health, safety, and education. Karen Cain has worked in the Wetzel Tyler Health Department for more than three decades. And she will tell you that most days in health services have obstacles that can be hurdled. That was before the year 2020-2021. Karen and her staff faced challenges she had not seen in her forty year nursing career.

WTHD employs four individuals: office assistant/biller (Marsha Carse), sanitarian Mitchell Guiler, clinic nurse Ashley Guiler and a part-time administrator Karen Cain. These individuals are responsible for Wetzel and Tyler Counties. That represents of a total population of 31000 people and covers an area of 620 square miles. When COVID 19 hit West Virginia and crept into Wetzel and Tyler counties, all necessary services came to a screeching halt. It was all hands-on deck. You would see us in the office at 7am and not leaving until 6 or 7pm or later. There were phone calls in the evenings and working through the weekends. Our kids and grandkids wondered what was going on. They would talk about “the sickness” and “masks help make me not sick”. We would sit at our desks and watched our phone lines jammed with incoming calls. We had people showing up to the office either in panic due to fear of exposure or irate due to COVID altering their routine. The pandemic had just begun, and we knew we needed to rely on our community resources to help WTHD with the fight.

COVID19 had three main priorities that intertwined: testing, tracing, and vaccination. Each portion had its own frustrations.

COVID Testing. Testing availability was limited in the first 1-2 months and was left to the local health departments to facilitate using our State Lab which had limited hours Monday through Friday with minimal courier services available.

Testing supplies were limited and were temperature and time sensitive. There were many times that Tyler County Emergency Manager, Tom Cooper, had to drive COVID specimens to Charleston’s lab and retrieve additional testing supplies if testing was performed on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday. Many trips were made late at night. When testing availability increased, Wetzel County Emergency Manager Steve Yoho assisted with the Wetzel testing site with the National Guard while Tyler County Emergency Manager Tom Cooper assisted with the testing site for Tyler.

When testing began to increase over summer 2020, WTHD was currently working 10-12 hours a day 6-7 days a week. All health departments were working an excessive amount of time.

We were “trying to stay ahead of the curve” while simultaneously attending meetings with State level authorities for instruction and guidance, organizing testing with the Nation Guard, and performing contact tracing to quarantine exposed individuals and isolate positive cases. Contact tracing criteria was established with a goal to have all positive cases and contacts to be notified and isolated within 24-48 hours of a positive test by the local health department. It was unobtainable.

Contact Tracing. The basic ins and outs of contact tracing consisted of contacting the positive individual, ask them a series of standardized questions which averaged about 15 minutes. After the case was isolated, the phone calls began for the person’s close contacts. Depending on the number of individuals exposed, these “contact calls” could last anywhere from 13-45 minutes.

Each call was different. Some people irritated with the “hoax” and would provide no information while others were in fear. Fear ranged from health concern, losing a job, or not being able to pay bills. Call after call, week after week people provided less and less information. Cases were increasing as well as fear.

Wetzel & Tyler Health Department is and agency with one goal, provide the best service and information to the public possible. Medical and scientific data provide the path to improving public health.

Unfortunately the process outside the doors of the building became more and more politically motivated. This ever increasing challenge made the department’s job more difficult as time passed. Next week, part 2 of the Health Departments story.