As COVID firmly entrenched itself in Calhoun, all eyes turned to the Health
Department for guidance. “No problem,” we thought. “We have a plan.
Indeed, we did have a plan. Since I began working at CCHD in 2008, my
duties have included writing, practicing, and tweaking that plan, all in preparation
for an event such as this. All of this plan writing and practicing was done under
the direction of the State of Illinois, whose requirements were rigid and plentiful.
We had met all those requirements, and our plan had passed yearly inspections
with a score of 100. While dreading the onslaught of the disease, I secretly felt a
little excitement at finally getting to see our beautiful plan come to life.
Our mock drills usually had something like anthrax, which is not contagious,
as the culprit. The contagion of COVID brought a whole new complication to the
table, as social distancing, masking, working remotely, contact tracing,
quarantines, etc. all got brought into the mix. Even so, we had what we felt was a
solid plan. We had practiced it with our own staff and volunteers, with Health
Departments from neighboring counties, and had even participated in a huge bi-
state exercise with Missouri counties, dispensing mock medications together. Our
plan focused on good communication with clear, concise messaging for the
public, the pick up/delivery of medicines for distribution to County residents, and
the actual dispensing of the meds at mass vaccination clinics. We built a
volunteer corps to assist, and knew our vaccination capabilities, down to the
exact number of shots we could give per hour. County Health Department
Administrators assured each other on Zoom meetings, “We’ve got this.” Staff at
each Department readied for the highly anticipated roll out of their plans,
concerned but confident that everything was under control. How could it not be?
We all had a plan.
Agencies were tasked with organizing the largest vaccination drive since
Polio in the 60’s. This request came with several unanticipated issues. COVID
became politicized from the beginning, causing mistrust, hostility, and fear. Now
Health Department employees had to fight not only the virus, but the animosity
of those who believed that this was a political issue and not a medical one. That
certainly wasn’t addressed in the plan.
Communication is always a key component in any endeavor. Our plan
relied on the State and Federal governments providing us with the messages we
put out to the public. This is done so that everyone is receiving the same
messages, and there is no confusion. The communication we were receiving from
both State and Federal sources was confusing, erratic, contradictory, delayed, and
at times, completely wrong. It became increasingly difficult to keep the citizens of
Calhoun informed, because we weren’t receiving accurate information. I can
recall several times when our staff would look at each other after a State call, and
wonder exactly what we had just heard. Didn’t they just contradict what they
said yesterday? How do we maintain the public’s confidence in the Health
Department, when it sounds as if we’re making it up as we go along? Still, we
persevered, referring back to our plan, still desperately trying to make use of
what we had previously felt would save us all. The Communication part seemed
to be crumbling, but it was still a good plan, right?
Our beloved document continued to disintegrate, as vaccine delivery
became a nightmare. Allocations to counties were inconsistent and perplexing.
We rarely had much notice as to what we were receiving and when it would be
arriving, so clinics were difficult to plan. Some vaccine was delivered, and some
had to be picked up in other areas of the state. At first, Calhoun received only
100 vaccines each week, a number far less than we anticipated. Up until this
point, we had still been preparing for mass vaccination clinics. These vaccine
amounts were no larger than our normal Flu clinics. All of our plans for mass
vaccination clinics were abandoned, and our efforts instead were directed toward
forming lists, categorizing, and notifying those who would receive the limited
number of vaccinations each week.
COVID testing and contact tracing (the practice of notifying those who have
been exposed to someone with COVID) were never part of our emergency plans,
since contagion was rarely considered. They both became hugely important,
however, and Health Departments soon found themselves writing policies and
attempting to incorporate these elements into plans. All local Health
Departments assumed that the much practiced, much lauded cooperation
between Missouri and Illinois would exist in the real pandemic world, not just in
“Pretend Plan World.” This was not the case, however, as we quickly discovered.
When Calhoun residents were tested in Missouri (at hospitals, physician offices, etc.), we were not notified. It was often the case that we heard on the street
about a positive long before we received any official notification, which
sometimes never came. This made performing our tasks such as contact tracing
and reporting accurate up to date numbers to the public almost impossible.
Our vaccination clinics, although much smaller than we anticipated due to
early lack of vaccine, did stay fairly close to the original plan, just much scaled
back. We felt that they were successful, and the public seemed pleased with
As the CCHD staff fought to protect the citizens of Calhoun, they at times,
unfortunately, became a public punching bag. Contact tracers were cursed at,
COVID testers brought in by the State were threatened and ridiculed, and efforts
to convince people to mask and social distance were met with hostility. Where
was the part of the plan that told us how to deal with that? Where did it tell us
how to fight back the tears and take the verbal abuse being dealt out daily while
we’re trying to help people?
COVID caught the world by surprise, and we have all learned valuable
lessons. We have learned that even the best of plans requires attention and
modification. While it was discouraging to see the State seemingly disregarding
what they had forced us to create and practice for many years, it demonstrated to
us the need for flexibility and adaptability. Our 2020 bewailing of the seeming
abandonment of our plan, and even the State’s plan, in 2021 turned to a realistic
assessment of the situation, trashing some old elements of our plan, saving what
Thinking back to March 2020, I am amused when I recall the confidence
(near cockiness) I exhibited when our staff first began discussing the pandemic.
“We’ll be fine,” I said. “We have a plan.”
Have you ever thought you were prepared for something, and then discovered
you really weren’t? Does your family have an emergency plan? The following is a
link to a guide to setting up a family emergency plan, including for a pandemic: