After well over a year of working under the onus of COVID-19, things at the Barton County Health Department are inching back to normal, Health Director Karen Winkelman told the County Commission Monday morning.
“The decrease in the demand for the COVID-related services is allowing us to open up our availability to public health services to our pre-COVID state,” Winkelman said, noting that started Monday. “So some of our staff are taking some big breaths today because there are a few new staff that came in when COVID came, and they’re not familiar with what the walking services all entails so we are mentoring them along.”
They will offer walk-in services during all of their operational hours, she said. This includes from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday, and from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. on Thursday.
“It seems to me that we’re moving towards some kind of normalcy,” District 5 Commissioner Jennifer Schartz said. “I would just want to encourage you, as you see things change in your office, that you allow yourself some time off because it’s so very well deserved.”
“Very good job,” echoed District 3 Commissioner Shawn Hutchinson said.
COVID testing will be still conducted, but just on a case-by-case basis. That will involve a consult with a nurse to gather the details.
Up to this point, the BCHD has provided COVID testing by schedule. Initially,this was done almost daily, then it decreased to three times, then done to once weekly.
“At this time, we have definitely seen a decrease in the need for it through our department,” she said. So, for now, they are looking at ceasing scheduled testing opportunities.
As for the vaccines, “the drive-throughs will be placed on hold for now,” she said, “But, at any moment we could re-implement those.”
For the time being, they will distribute the doses daily in the department’s office during business hours. Although this will be evaluated weekly, “but public will actually have more access to the vaccine,” she said.
“We’re encouraging individuals to call in, or they can walk in, and be put on a sign-up sheet which will be reviewed throughout the day,” she said.
If they open a vial of Moderna vaccine, which is our main vaccine they have now, it is good for 12 hours. So, it is good all day and has enough vaccine for 10 or 11 first or second doses.
Should they get the Pfizer vaccine, a vial is only good for six hours after being opened, she said. One vial is good for six shots.
“We’re going to have to be creative and we’re going to have to really work on this and see how it moves forward,” she said. “We’re not giving a specific time because we will be handling other walking services in conjunction with this.”
The BCHD started operating drive through vaccine clinics in its parking on a small scale. Then they moved to the Great Bend Expo Complex for 12 large-scale clinics and to Brit Spaugh Park for two more.
They also provided on-site outreaches to targeted populations in the community, along with two outreaches of each of the three hospitals. “And we’re still continuing to provide home visits and visits to long-term care and assisted living facilities as needed,” she said.
“At this time, the demand for testing and the services for vaccination have decreased, and we’ve continued to see a decrease in the amount prime (doses) being administered at those events,” she said. “I think that is due to the greater access to vaccines in our community. There’s more options available.”
A hectic 450 days
Last Thursday, Kansas Health and Environment Director Dr. Lee Norman announced the state was on day 450 of incident command. Typically this is a situation that lasts about 24 to 72 hours.
By Monday, that had stretched to 454 days.
“During this time our operations and availability of services to the community have varied,” Winkelman said. “It’s been dependent upon what type of duties that we needed to take care of due to COVID.”
The department has had to, at different times throughout the past 450 days, limit what it does. “But, we have never discontinued services to our community.”
The number of positive cases, both confirmed and probable, sits at 2,500, Winkelman said. Currently there are seven active positive cases in the county.
And along with those, there have been 7,000 quarantine/isolation orders and recommended quarantines during testing.
The department has administered a total of 9,585 doses of the Moderna vaccine, with 5,008 being prime 4,094 being boosters, and 483 of Johnson and Johnson doses. In addition, they’ve transferred 1,900 doses to University of Kansas Health System - Great Bend, Clara Barton Hospital and Ellinwood District Hospital.
Although all the pharmacies in the county have the vaccine, Winkelman said she can’t speak to the number of vaccines they’ve given. “That’s where it’s really hard to come up with a percentage of the community being vaccinated.”
COVID odds and ends
• Winkelman noted that social distancing continues to “be one of the tools in the toolbox” in preventing additional COVID cases. “The more layers of protection that we have, the better. So I think it’s common sense.”
• The COVID variants have not shown up in Barton County yet, Winkelman said. They have appeared in Finney County and, with each report from the state, they seem to be spreading.
• “Are the vaccines effective against the variants?” Hutchinson said.
“They continue to do studies on that, but what they’re finding is that to some extent they are,” Winkelman said
• With someone who had COVID, it was initially thought they had 60 days of natural immunity to the virus, she said, adding that was stretched to 90 days. But, she said they have seen individuals recently become re-infected in fewer than 60 days.
• It is being studied to lower the emergency authorization use of vaccines for those as young as 12.