OHIO – In the American system, the “point people” in any disease outbreak is the local health departments and that extends to the novel coronavirus.
As of March 21, Summit County had 15 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, and no deaths from it. The primary focus at the moment is to “flatten the curve,” slowing the inevitable infections over a longer period of time to avoid overwhelming the health care system. This is accomplished largely through encouraging people to stay home and locking the doors on most businesses.
“Our teams are working hard to respond, as needed, throughout the county,” Dawn Meyers, the public information officer for Summit County Public Health, said. “We are responding to concerns of businesses that are not following the state's orders to shut down. People who want to report non-compliant Summit County businesses (restaurants, bars, nail salons, gyms, etc.) can call 330-926-5600.”
Even the public health sector is not immune to the effects of the disease, however. March 21, the announcement came that Summit County Public Health had laid off 26 employees.
“This is one of the most difficult decisions of my career,” Health Commissioner Donna Skoda told The Post. “I feel so bad for so many people.”
Skoda said the bulk of those laid off are clerical, dental and other “forward-facing” positions,” such as WIC, which no longer requires in-person visits and alcohol and drug abuse counseling. She said the layoffs serve the dual purpose of following the physical distancing requirements of disease prevention and reallocating resources to actual infectious disease response. Part of that response is opening up joint operations with other agencies.
“Because there are so many unknowns we wanted to give the staff as much notice as possible to minimize the financial damage,” Skoda said, adding they would receive at least two weeks pay to carry them through until their unemployment, streamlined by Columbus due to the crisis, kicks in.
She does worry about long-term consequences.
“What affects one program affects others,” Skoda said.
Wayne County, as of March 22, still had no confirmed cases of the disease, although 40 of the state’s 88 counties did.
“Everything can change 15 minutes after we hang up the phone,” Wayne County Health Commissioner Nick Cascarelli told The Post.
The health department has set up a joint operations center, coordinating with area hospitals, the dispatch center, police, EMS and the Emergency Management Agency. The United Way of Wayne and Holmes Counties offered up its WHIRE service as a public clearinghouse for information. The public can call 330-263-6363 with questions or concerns. The EMA has also set up a website with coronavirus information the public can access at www.wcjic.org.
“We are looking to make sure needs are addressed in the community,” Cascarelli said.
Like Summit County’s, Wayne’s health department is focusing resources on disease response and limiting public exposure. For instance, birth and death certificates can be obtained online.
“We’re doing business at the health department by appointment only,” Cascarelli said. “We’re doing no indoor inspections except where the structure is empty.”
And he had advice for the community.
“If you don’t have to go, don’t,” Cascarelli said.