Employees in the Hamilton County Health Dept. prefer to remain behind the scenes.
Typically, they spend their days completing birth and death certificates, giving immunizations, creating preparedness plans, inspecting restaurants and educating the community, among other responsibilities.
But life during the COVID-19 pandemic is anything but typical, and HCHD has been thrust into the spotlight as the local organization tasked with keeping the community as safe and healthy as possible from a disease that has caused more than 1 million deaths worldwide.
“This time, everyone is looking to us for all of the answers, and we’re helping steer the ship more than we usually do,” said Christian Walker, HCHD emergency preparedness coordinator.
These days, HCHD employees are busy monitoring COVID-19 cases, providing guidance to schools and other organizations, reviewing reopening plans, educating the public about how to manage through a global pandemic and working with the state to coordinate COVID-19 testing sites — all in addition to its normal workload, and without additional employees.
Some HCHD services paused or slowed during the stay-at-home order in the spring, and now the department is working to clear those backlogs as the state reopens.
“Even though we’ve got the pandemic front and center on everybody’s plate, rest assured the other public health things we do are being watched and taken care of,” said Charles Harris, the HCHD’s health officer since 1986 and a recently retired family physician.
‘We don’t take this lightly’
Before the earliest reports of a novel coronavirus spreading in China reached U.S. health officials, the HCHD had been reviewing its emerging infectious disease plan as part of routine updates. Walker and his team had been trying to determine if there were any new threats that could potentially harm the community shortly before they learned about COVID-19.
“Not in our wildest dreams did we imagine it would be like this, but at least we had a framework and our partners within the municipalities were aware that we were working on this,” said Walker, a Carmel resident.
HCHD officials began taking a serious look at the disease in January before the first U.S. case was confirmed later that month in Washington state, and in February they began preparing for worst-case scenarios on the local level. State health officials confirmed the first case in Indiana on March 6, with the first case in Hamilton County announced nine days later.
“We’ve been responding to this since before we ever had a case in Hamilton County and the U.S.,” Walker said.
In the early days of the pandemic, HCHD officials would be notified when residents returned from China and had them report their temperature twice a day, encountering various levels of cooperation. As the pandemic spread, HCHD employees were tasked with investigating positive cases and contact tracing, which is not a new concept to them but had not been done on such a large scale. In May, the state of Indiana took over contact tracing efforts, but the health department is still providing assistance to state and local organizations as they manage through the process to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Now, additional work created by the pandemic includes time-consuming calls by HCHD Director of Nursing Janice VanMetre to confirm each Hamilton County resident reported to have died of COVID-19 actually had the disease to ensure local numbers are reported accurately. Walker, in addition to continuing to plan for other types of disasters, is working to create a COVID-19 vaccination distribution plan.
Through it all, HCHD employees have been wearing masks and taking other precautions to ensure their work can continue uninterrupted.
“We don’t take this lightly,” said VanMetre, a Noblesville resident. “If one person here gets COVID, our whole office is going to be in a bad way, so we all protect each other very much. If someone complains about having a sore throat, we tell them to go home. Our work doesn’t stop here. We’re in here on the weekends and we do different things to catch up.”
‘It affects our lives, too’
Throughout the pandemic, HCHD employees have supported each other beyond keeping each other physically safe.
The long hours, constantly dealing with residents who are stressed, sick or frightened by COVID-19, and limited opportunity for time off also take an emotional and mental toll.
“There is nobody that wants to come out of this (pandemic) more than public health,” said Jason LeMaster, the HCHD director of environmental health.
As they help the public navigate the pandemic, HCHD employees are also trying to keep their own families and loved ones safe and informed.
“It affects our lives, too. It’s not like we’re robots and we come to work,” said VanMetre, a Noblesville resident. “What people need to take into account and remember is, we do this because we care. If we didn’t, I think we would’ve been out of this business a long time ago.”
Walker said he’s heard reports of public health officials leaving the field during the pandemic for a variety of reasons, but that hasn’t been the case at HCHD, where many of its employees have worked for decades. With only five years at the department, Walker considers himself a newcomer. He said he and his co-workers are prepared to continue the “marathon” of protecting the public during a pandemic.
“We’re all human. We’ve all had missteps along the way. We’re dealing with a new threat in the community,” Walker said. “Has our response been perfect? No, but we’ve tried to pivot and adapt as fast as we can and do the best we can for our community.”
2020 BY THE NUMBERS
- 31 Employees in HCHD office (excluding six seasonal workers)
- 163 New restaurants applications (on track to outpace 2019)
- 199 Phase I environmental records requests
- 2,162 Immunizations given
- 5,727 Birth certificates (through September)
- 9,356 Death certificates (through September)
- 840 COVID-19 case investigations from March 16 to May 16
- 400 Case investigations averaged each year for other diseases
- 6,117 COVID-19 cases in Hamilton County (through 10/23)
- 113 COVID-19 deaths in Hamilton County (through 10/23)