In an effort to make sure rural voices are heard, WORH is conducting interviews with local health departments, healthcare providers, and EMTs. This week’s spotlight: Iowa County.
Debra Siegenthaler is the director of Iowa County’s Public Health Department. On May 5, Iowa County had 7 positive cases of COVID-19, 308 negative tests, and no deaths.
WORH: What are the biggest challenges that you’re facing right now during the coronavirus pandemic?
Siegenthaler: There are multiple challenges. One is communicating with the public. People have been doing these stay at home orders for a while now. They’re getting antsy to resume to a “normal” life. And there’s a spectrum of understanding the reason for social distancing. Communicating with the public is at the forefront of the work that we do.
Social distancing is actually working. We are doing good work. But there is a constant need to communicate that. We need to help folks to stay the course and remain patient.
WORH: How do Iowa County’s demographics affect how you communicate?
Siegenthaler: We’ve had lots of discussions about our vulnerable populations. How do we reach our elderly folks who might not be on Facebook? How do we reach the Amish population? And boy, it’s a challenge, no doubt. But we definitely have those conversations all the time with our daily messaging in mind.
As for the Amish, we’ve tapped into folks who have connections with Amish communities, drivers and midwives and others, to share our messages about the pandemic and social distancing. We went that route because the Amish are not on social media.
WORH: How are testing and contact tracing going?
Siegenthaler: There’s a disparity in Wisconsin as far as getting testing out. We really struggled to get tests locally, but by late-April we did get some more tests, so that’s great. And we work every day with our local health care providers to operationalize that expanded testing and do it in a way that makes sense.
We still don’t have enough PPE and that affects testing. For example, you have to have enough PPE in order to collect specimens and run the specimens at labs. These have been real issues and they’re still not completely resolved.
What goes along with testing is contact tracing and investigation. Here in Iowa County we are a really tiny department. There are two full-time nurses, a health educator, an environmental health sanitarian, and me, the director. Fortunately, we have some LTE nurses that we’ve been able to call on. These nurses work elsewhere and they’ve either been furloughed or called off the job. They have been fabulous. We’ve put out the word through the Wisconsin Emergency Assistance Volunteer Registry (Weavr). Weavr vets and recruits health care and behavioral health care folks that could be called upon in an emergency. We have a nice list and people have reached out to us. I’m in the throes of bringing more people on. In fact, today we had orientation for three new people.
The state is bringing on a healthy number of contact tracers. That is an asset that we can dip into as well. My preference would be to hire locally for contact tracers because there’s always lots of questions that come up.
WORH: Are there any other challenges you are facing?
Siegenthaler: Another challenge is our craving for data and for information to help us project the future. When will the surge happen? When is the peak? The problem with the pandemic is we’re not going to know when we reach the peak until it has passed. We’re living it, and we’re collecting all of the data. We’re obviously looking at it every single day, but it’s incomplete data.