Swamped health department adjusts to H1N1 demands

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Wednesday, November 18, 2009
— Phone calls to the Rock County Health Department have doubled since the swine flu emerged.

Staff have taken their clinic on the road to vaccinate thousands of residents.

And other programs have been cut back while employees from all areas of the department changed their focus to step in.

It's all to be expected when such a large public health issue such as H1N1 hits, but dealing with it has meant changes for health officials at all levels.

"It's just a real team effort," Health Officer Karen Cain said. "Every day we think we know what we're going to do, and sometimes in the middle of the day we change our plan for the day, and that's very unusual for us."

The health department prides itself on providing face-to-face or at least human contact, Cain said.

"We've had to eliminate some of that," she said. "We've had to put signs up because we just don't have the staff to be out here greeting people."

A recorded flu hotline was set up, the Web site expanded and educational pieces written for company newsletters and the media. Still, clerical staff have taken 2,500 calls in just the first two weeks of November. That compares, for example, to 2,200 calls in the whole month of June.

Questions have ranged from the basics about the vaccine to what vaccine-seekers need to bring to prove they are high risk. A pregnant woman, apparently not showing, called asking if she needed to bring something to prove she was pregnant, said Carol McComb, administrative assistant.

All the attention on the health department has been great because now people know all the services offered by the department, McComb said. Staff have taken advantage of captive audiences waiting in line at clinics to promote other services such as radon and water testing kits.

But people have been eager to get the vaccine, even if they don't fit in the high-risk category.

"We've had people come in one day, look at our eligibility guidelines and they don't fall into it, so they return the next day and their story has changed," Cain said.

Others who don't fit the category have gone to their doctor for a note.

"We can't honor that," Cain said. "We still have to go with what the state recommendations are."

The department has vaccinated 3,000 to 4,000 people, many of them at on-site clinics that require time to pack bins of supplies.

Each vaccination requires paperwork and data to be uploaded to the Wisconsin Vaccination Registry. Clerical employees were so swamped that a temporary person was hired for data entry.

Nurses have canceled almost all of the maternal child health services, and environmental staff have temporarily changed roles.

"When we needed additional staff for clinics or support for H1N1 (duties), we've dropped some of our other tasks and did what we needed to do," said Rick Wietersen, a groundwater program specialist.

"We haven't taught him how to give shots yet," Cain joked. "They wanted to learn."

"We told them we'd be glad to do that as long as we can practice on the nurses," he responded with a laugh.

Staff also started meeting every Monday morning for a briefing.

"Things change from day to day, week to week," Cain said.

Is there an end in sight?

Cain just laughs.

With the vaccine shortage starting to dissipate—the department received 3,000 doses last week and 400 this week—clinics soon should be opening up to anyone who wants a vaccine.

Depending on the vaccine availability, officials likely will hold clinics in every Rock County school district, Cain said.

When the swine flu slows, it'll be time to reestablish all of the department's services and evaluate how things went.

"Our staff has done an excellent job, considering all the phone calls, all of it's a lot of repetitive things … but they've been very, very patient," Cain said.

Last updated: 11:55 am Thursday, December 13, 2012

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