Bolstered by assist of volunteers, El Paso County Public Well being navigates ups and downs of COVID-19 response | Colorado Springs Information
For nearly a year the COVID-19 pandemic has persisted, pushing local public health employees to lead the demanding, yet imperative response to one of the greatest health crises in memory.
Numerous volunteers have bolstered the work of El Paso County Public Health, providing thousands of hours to help the department’s full-time staff navigate ups and downs precipitated by the virus, from implementing ever-changing restrictions and mandates from the state, to opening community testing sites and supporting front-line workers across the Pikes Peak region.
“We can’t do our work without our volunteers and partnerships,” said El Paso County Public Health Director Susan Wheelan. “They provide a core foundational value.”
To meet the needs of the pandemic, the department reassigned most of its staff to a COVID-19 response role, officials said. The shift resulted in the closure or scaling back of other programs .
In March, as most staff was sent to work from home, public health programs providing essential services continued operating under various restrictions. County Public Health leveraged staff from various areas and programs — clinical services; Women, Infants and Children; Nurse-Family Partnership; the Tobacco Education and Prevention program and several others — and reassigned them to pandemic response roles, including at long-term care facilities, contact tracing, case investigation, data entry, behavioral health, vaccine distribution and communication.
Volunteers were brought in from programs including the Medical Reserve Corps, the Community Emergency Response Team and the University of Colorado Colorado Springs College of Nursing to supplement the response.
About 40 local volunteers from the Medical Reserve Corps, operated by the El Paso County Medical Society, have supported contact tracing and case investigation on a regular basis, providing around 3,700 case investigation hours from March through October, Wheelan told the Board of El Paso County Commissioners.
Medical Reserve Corps volunteers also provide background administrative support, said Scott Rand, a Corps volunteer who provides training and logistics work for the local group.
“There’s a lot that has to go on in the background to support public health employees,” Rand said. “Our volunteers help register people when they first get to an alternate care facility, order uniforms, provide food and drink to medical staff. Those are our troopers, and we need people there to help support them.”
Volunteers from the Community Emergency Response Team provided more than 640 hours from March through October to support call center and Emergency Coordination Center needs, Wheelan said.
Gary Huckabay was among the CERT volunteers working in the emergency operations center answering the public’s questions about the virus.
He also helped organize a mask-sewing project in the spring which provided more than 6,000 cloth masks to front-line workers. He called it Operation SAMSAM: Sew a Mask, Share a Mask.
Volunteers have also been crucial to the county’s COVID-19 response because the health department faces chronic understaffing.
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Data from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs show El Paso County’s estimated 2021 population at 749,000 people. Local public health agencies serving a population of between 500,000 and 999,000 should have 269 full-time employees, according to recommendations from the National Association of City and County Health Officials.
El Paso County Public Health has 158 base full-time employees, not including temporary staff hired for the COVID-19 response, Wheelan said.
“The position the agency is in is that it doesn’t have enough staffing to mount the response and also conduct the routine operations and responses that local public health has a statutory responsibility for,” she said. “We are chronically understaffed — and we have been — but this is not unique to our county. That’s statewide and national.”
To further supplement department staffing needs, other county employees stepped in to do double duty.
El Paso County Coroner Dr. Leon Kelly and staff in the Coroner’s Office were trained in contact investigations and tracing, Wheelan said. Kelly serves as the county’s deputy medical director in addition to his responsibilities as coroner, providing Wheelan medical counsel in coordination with El Paso County Public Health Medical Director Dr. Robin Johnson.
Temporary department staff were also funded by Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security funding. Public Health hired 24 temporary full-time employees and five part-time staff, including environmental health specialists, epidemiologists, public health nurses, disease intervention specialists and more, increasing the number of full-time employees to 182.
El Paso County Public Health also partnered with the Pikes Peak Workforce Center and Goodwill Staffing to hire 28 contracted staff.
“Though (El Paso County Public Health) hired more staff in 2020, the response demands, constantly changing state public health guidance and steady increase in cases have not provided much reprieve,” the department said in a statement.
“There’s a seven-days-a-week, 24-hours-a-day component,” El Paso County Public Health Deputy Director DeAnn Ryberg said. “In a pandemic, we’re staffing through the weekends and that’s a response capability that hasn’t been present before.”
The department has juggled its pandemic response with fulfilling a long list of other statutory requirements, including environmental health and communicable disease prevention, investigation and control, leaders said.
El Paso County Public Health’s onsite wastewater treatment system regulation hasn’t ceased, Wheelan said. Public Health inspects and regulates the septic systems and prevents human exposure to sewage and the contamination of groundwater by ensuring proper placement, design, installation and maintenance of residential and commercial systems not serviced by a municipal wastewater system.
There are an estimated 30,000 operating septic systems in the county, according to the department website.
Permitting for onsite wastewater treatment systems with flows of 2,000 gallons per day or less are conducted on a county level, and El Paso County routinely issues one of the highest numbers of permits in the state, Wheelan said. The county saw a 12% increase in transfer of title inspections from 2019 to 2020 and a 5% increase in permits issued for system repair or installation.
“Only two environmental health specialists have essentially kept that program up and running … while other specialists were primarily dedicated to providing technical assistance to businesses and organizations during COVID-19 response,” according to a statement from the county.
The Public Health laboratory has remained open throughout the pandemic without interruption for clinical and environmental testing during pandemic response, with high drinkable water testing volume.
Additionally, the county’s communicable disease program monitors more than 60 reportable diseases in the community, working around the clock to detect, investigate, control and prevent infectious disease and disease outbreaks.
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During COVID-19, the Public Health Data and Analytics Office — made up of two epidemiologists, a data analyst and a data scientist — has been helping with data collection, analysis and data reports; and surveys health disparities, recovery and co-occurring substance and mental health challenges to better understand the impact of COVID-19 and its burden on the county.
“The role of public health I view as almost a utility,” county Board of Public Health President Dr. James Terbush said. “It functions every day. It’s in the background; it’s quiet and unseen, but it just works. As an emergency response agency, that capability has to be maintained and kept up to speed. It’s a necessity of adequate staffing and funding. … Public health, for a long time, existed in a backwater, although the role has never been more important. I think the role of public health is likely to increase, along with its importance.”