To say that it has been a weird time to work in public health would be an understatement. COVID-19 has completely shifted the day-to-day realities and priorities of health departments around the globe. And while everything has seemingly changed, the foundation of public health—what makes public health so vitally important—has remained the same despite it all.
As I sit here and reflect on my past three years with Skagit County Public Health, I’ve got to tell you, it has been one heck of a ride! I remember during those first few weeks learning (in astonishment!) all the things that public health is responsible for. After all, I had never worked for a government agency before. I knew that people visited their health department to pick up birth and death records or to get information about community resources, but I couldn’t have imagined the depth and breadth of the work that is done here at 700 S 2nd Street in Mount Vernon.
As I walked around the halls and met my new co-workers, I discovered the many divisions that make up our team: child and family health, communicable diseases and epidemiology, behavioral health and housing services, environmental health and food safety, senior services, and community health and assessment.
Of these, emergency preparedness and response was only one small (though critical) part of the puzzle. During a staff training one day, I learned a bit more about this division and was surprised to learn that all public health staff could be activated during times of public health crisis. At the time, I couldn’t fathom what this would look like. Now, a year into Public Health’s COVID-19 response, I can tell you exactly what this response is like!
When COVID-19 first appeared in Washington State last year, County leadership was the first to respond: Unified Command was established and plans were quickly put into place to mitigate risks associated with disease transmission.
Our Public Health staff was activated—slowly at first, then almost entirely by the summer of 2020. On any given day in June or July at Skagit County’s COVID-19 testing site, you might have seen a hand-full of Public Health staff working to register people or help to administer tests—at times even jumping car batteries—whatever they had to do to get the job done.
Back at the office, a whole team of staff were called to conduct case investigation and contact tracing, conducting investigations seven days a week. Big plans for 2020 that had been on our work calendars were adjusted or put on hold to accommodate the ever-increasing demands of our COVID response.
More recently, with our vaccination initiative in full gear, we are in a much better (and sustainable) place. Our Vaccine Site at the Fairgrounds and Vaccine Hotline have been blessed by hundreds of hard-working and dedicated volunteers who show up every day to help get our community vaccinated. Our staff has also grown and changed, with an influx of new temporary and part-time staff that have been hired to conduct case investigations and to provide vaccine services at our clinic.
As the numbers of vaccinated individuals in the state continues to increase, it begs the question: What will life look like after COVID? And even: What will Public Health look like if/when the demands of COVID begin to subside?
This week is National Public Health Week and is the perfect time to highlight the role of Public Health. Although our work has primarily been centered around COVID-19 this year, it is in no way all that we do.
Here is a quick look at some of the other things your local public health department does:
Behavioral Health Services
Public Health works with community organizations and coalitions, school districts, and regional partners to ensure that help is available to those in need, including access to mental health and substance use disorder treatment and recovery services. For more: https://www.skagitcounty.net/Departments/HumanServices/mh.htm.
Child & Family Services
The Child & Family Health Division works with individuals, families, and the community to assure that all Skagit County children have the healthiest possible start in life, with particular emphasis on pregnant women, infants, and toddlers. Programs include the Nurse-Family Partnership, ABCD Dental, Parent Cafes, and Skagit Bright Beginnings. For more information: https://www.skagitcounty.net/Departments/HealthFamily/main.htm.
Our Senior Services staff at the office are only the tip of the iceberg; this is a huge team! We have five senior centers in Skagit County and a robust Meals on Wheels and Senior Nutrition program. While many senior services have been put on hold due to COVID, the nutrition program has been instrumental to our crisis response. For more information: https://www.skagitcounty.net/Departments/HumanServices/SeniorCenters/Home/Main.htm.
Developmental Disabilities Services
The Developmental Disabilities Program manages a variety of programs related to providing services to individuals with developmental disabilities, while also providing support for individuals and families and hosting community events and trainings to improve community awareness of developmental disabilities and inclusion. https://www.skagitcounty.net/Departments/HumanServices/DD/main.htm
Skagit County Public Health partners with local cities and nonprofits to provide humanitarian response, emergency shelters, rental assistance and supportive services with the goal of improving access to housing and reducing homelessness. Most recently, Public Health has made emergency funding available to those who have been impacted by COVID-19, and this funding can be used toward rental or utility bill assistance. For more: https://www.skagitcounty.net/Departments/HumanServices/HousingMain.htm.
Environmental Health Services
Environmental Health is easily the most diverse division that we have here at Public Health. From drinking water and food safety to the on-site sewage program and hazardous waste, our EH team is always super busy ensuring our residents are safe and healthy. For more: https://www.skagitcounty.net/Departments/HealthEnvironmental/main.htm.
Communicable Disease & Epidemiology
The shining star of 2020! The Communicable Disease Program works closely with our healthcare provider partners to investigate notifiable conditions reported by health professionals, identify risk factors for disease, and provide education on how to prevent future infections. And we’re not just talking COVID-19! For more info: https://www.skagitcounty.net/Departments/HealthDiseases/main.htm.
Community Health and Assessment
Lastly, it is Public Health’s responsibility to think BIG: to analyze the data, identify the gaps, and propose new and innovative solutions. Public Health brings together a group of community leaders—called the Population Health Trust (PHT) —to solve Skagit County’s health issues that our community identifies. To learn more about the PHT, go to: https://www.skagitcounty.net/Departments/PHTAC.
If you run into a Public Health employee this week, give them a big air-five! And next time you’re wondering what the heck Public Health does, please remember—we’re so much more than COVID!