Like freedom, public health isn't free, especially during a pandemic
By Mary Wade Burnside
What a difference a year makes.
Last January, just ahead of the 2020 state legislative session, Monongalia County Health Department implored our state legislators not to weaken West Virginia’s vaccination laws, which are among the most stringent in our nation.
Now, from where we sit, vaccines for COVID-19 are very popular. During January, telephones at our health department rang off the hook as individuals called, very anxious to get an appointment for an inoculation for themselves, or their elderly parents, or their spouse with health issues, or for an essential worker in their family. You get the idea.
Of course, we know that vaccines are our best defense against the pandemic that was declared last March. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that everyone is on board with getting inoculated.
But for those who weren’t around to witness the ravages of a virus like polio, which was eventually wiped out by vaccines, or measles, which had been eradicated in the United States until it re-emerged in 2019 when vaccinations were reduced, it has been a great illustration on the part science plays in our health.
And, because the West Virginia Legislature will come into session a week from today on Feb. 10, it’s also a great time to address another component of health, and in this case, public health. And that would be funding.
A few years ago, the Legislature cut funding for public health by 25%. If there ever was a year in which that decision came home to roost, it was 2020, as MCHD, along with health departments all across the state, were required to mount a response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But just like freedom, public health isn’t free.
Since March, MCHD’s part-time and full-time employees have increased from 65 to 107. When you consider that we also until recently had a contingent of both West Virginia National Guard troops and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) all embedded and working out of our conference rooms, that has meant a pretty packed health department building. To make room for one more worker to help us answer phones recently, mailboxes were taken down so that the countertop beneath them could be turned into a desk.
In March, the health department was open seven days a week and even though that’s not the case on weekends anymore, all seven days are covered by employees working in shifts. This allows the processing of all the positive COVID-19 cases, including disease investigation and contact tracing.
Additionally, MCHD has continued to perform community testing twice weekly. And since Dec. 15, we have added providing vaccines to our community to the list.
During all this time, our employees have had to learn a total of 10 new software systems in just about as many months.
Like other businesses during the pandemic, we’ve taken on new expenses. In addition to salaries for new employees, these include new equipment such as phones, laptops, printers and workstations; personal protective equipment such as surgical masks, N-95 masks, face shields, gowns and hand sanitizer; new vaccine refrigerators and ultra-cold freezers that will safely store Pfizer vaccine at -80 degrees Celsius, and a walk-through temperature scanner that somewhat resembles a metal detector.
Many of these expenses have been taken on without knowing whether reimbursement will come from one source or another, be it state, county or federal sources.
And at the same time, MCHD is performing all the other required duties it did before. Take, for instance, MCHD Clinical Services, which has been busy setting up appointments and administering COVID-19 vaccines to first responders and health care workers.
That’s also where community members can go for other vaccines, such as influenza, shingles, pneumonia, measles, etc. As well as free STD and tuberculosis testing and treatment, family planning, pap tests and breast exams, all of which people still need.
Or MCHD Environmental Health. Our registered sanitarians have responded to hundreds of COVID-19-related complaints. But they still need to conduct regular inspections on restaurants, hotels, motels, tattoo studios, and more. The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t made radon disappear, so we still have a specialist who can test for the levels in area homes and businesses.
And even though 2020 was a very light year for rabies compared to 2019, sanitarians still went out into the Morgantown area in August and distributed rabies vaccine baits by hand to help keep raccoons and other animals well. Because if they didn’t, rabies would return.
Then there is MCHD Dentistry, which has had to take on new PPE and safety procedures in order to treat patients. And on Friday, they will provide free dental checkups to uninsured children 18 years and younger as part of its annual Give Kids a Smile event.
Threat Preparedness, of course, has been busy with setting up the logistics of the testing and vaccine clinics as well as running them. And the MCHD Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program is bustling as well, teaching breastfeeding techniques and nutrition to participants remotely and getting ready to debut a new test kitchen where healthy recipes can be showcased.
We hope that the COVID-19 vaccines are the start of the light at the end of the tunnel and that next year, when the Legislature gets ready to convene again, the pandemic will be behind us or at least stabilized.
But there will be other viruses. There will still be the need for rabies control, radon testing, flu vaccines, STD testing and treatment, restaurant inspections and more. The list goes on.
Fewer than two months since the COVID-19 vaccines debuted, West Virginia has hovered at or near the No. 1 spot in shots administered, a fact that has received a lot of attention in the national news this week. Clearly, public health is important to residents of the Mountain State.
Let’s remember that when it comes time to fund public health.