Sweeping reductions in staff across the state health department have left fewer people handling more responsibilities statewide, but local departments are working to regain their balance.
Carter County Health Department’s Administrative Director Mendy Spohn said her region now encompasses seven counties, Carter, Love, Johnston, Jefferson, Marshall, Stephens and Pontotoc with 64 staff members.
The district lost 32 people, 14 that resigned or retired and 18 that were terminated, which has made day-to-day operations a challenge. For example, one maintenance person now covers eight facilities.
“I’m currently working 15 positions through the approval process for rehire,” Spohn said. “Most of those are from the people who retired or resigned.”
Thirty-two staff members are headquartered in Carter County, but many cover multiple locations. Regional staff cover all seven counties, while others like health educators cover three counties at any given time. The health department is short on nurses, wellness coordinators, administrative assistants and various clerical positions along with more niche personnel, like quadrant sanitarians, who oversee health inspections for restaurants.
“The health department plays such a diverse role in a community,” Spohn said. “We have a lot of services.”
Spohn said her staff has stepped up to the challenge to a commendable degree, but the situation isn’t a sustainable one.
“The staff here have had a huge amount put on them,” Spohn said. “Many nurses have been asked to cover four different positions; we have clerical staff who aren’t in the same place daily. Basically, we’re asking them to go above and beyond and they have.”
The Pontotoc County Health Department, where five staff members covered a department that originally had 16, was added to Spohn’s district in June.
“When we began working in Ada they were really down on staff, so that’s taken an extra effort from the Ardmore staff to try and cover Ada,” Spohn said. “We had help from other surrounding districts like Murray, Atoka County and Pottawatomie County.”
The smaller staffs have led to limited service days in certain counties. Johnston and Jefferson Counties currently don’t offer nursing services on certain days, and only employ a skeleton crew to run the offices on those day. Spohn said patients in those counties should call ahead to make appointments and find out what day services will be available.
“I am so proud of my staff,” Spohn said. “The reason these people are here working so hard is because they care about each other and the community. Sometimes the hardest part on them is having to turn people away.”
Spohn said the move is an unprecedented one, something she hasn’t seen in her 17 years with the department.
“I think as we add staff we’ll get back to offering services on all days,” Spohn said. “I think we need to be smart. It kind of paints a dire picture for right now, but that’s not really what we’re looking at in the future. We have people being interviewed and we have people soon to come on.”
Spohn said three regional positions eliminated by the state health department, a regional supervisor of nurses, a turning point field consultant and a business manager, were particularly important.
“They’re our infrastructure for problem solving is how I look at it,” Spohn said. “My boss tends to say we lost our bench.”
The regional supervisor of nurses position was eliminated from the region, but replaced with someone based in Love County.
“We lost one that was in Duncan,” Spohn said.
The turning point field consultant focused on community engagement and worked with communities on everything from addiction to mental health to street projects. Brandi Straka filled that role in Carter County.
“She covered, I think, 14 counties,” Spohn said. “They would help write grants or find funding or help mobilize the community. That position was supervised out of the state department, but regionally placed, and she played a heavy role here.”
In addition, the district had two business managers and now only has one. The manager oversees operations, making sure the departments are following state and county laws and following procedures.
“It’s that very complicated financial component that she’s doing now that we don’t have administrative assistants in those counties,” Spohn said.