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But we have this plan…

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

them.


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

worked.


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.”


~Sandy


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:

https://www.ready.gov/pandemic

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