Powering through the pandemic: County health department fighting COVID-19 on a daily basis

Drew Butler
The Ardmoreite
The nursing staff at the Carter County Health Department have been working diligently since the pandemic hit in March.
Oklahoma Department of Health Regional Administrative Director Mendy Spohn (left) and other members of the incident command room in Carter County. In addition to their regular duties, the group also helps coordinate information and policies throughout the district.
The reception team at the Carter County Health Department is often on the front lines of communication with the public. Their day often includes back-to-back phone calls where they answer questions or connect callers to the correct department.
Nurses test for COVID-19 at a drive through testing site at the Carter County Department of Health.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit earlier this year, health departments across the nation kicked their operations into high gear. The Carter County Health Department has been no exception to this rule, as they have been an integral part of testing, contact tracing, and disseminating information to the public.

Mendy Spohn, regional administrative director with the Oklahoma Department of Health, directs the activities of the Carter County Health Department as well as eight other counties in the area. She said the entire team has been working diligently throughout the pandemic to help keep the public safe.

“Ever since this started back in March, it’s been all hands on deck,” Spohn said. “We provide several services here, but everyone from our nurses to our occupational therapists to our psychological clinicians are all doing COVID. They’re all doing the case investigations, and they all taking on-call shifts.”

Because the coronavirus does not stop spreading over the weekend, staff members need to be on call and working seven days a week.

“it’s been rare if they’ve had a chance to take a day off, and I’m talking about weekends not to even mention vacation,” Spohn said. “Our on-call team has been there to work the cases through every holiday and every weekend. Sometimes they’re working 13 or 14 hours a day.”

She said the public health nurses are especially affected by these hours because they are the ones who can administer the testing and perform the medical aspects of the case investigations.

Spohn also highlighted the work that goes on behind the scenes to keep everyone on the same page.

“We operate as a district, so it’s all nine of my counties working as one,” she said. “We have set up our incident command room at every health department and every Monday, Wednesday and Friday we have a call where we share the issues that are going on. I also have an area command meeting on Tuesdays and Thursdays where I share information with all the emergency managers, city managers, and hospital officials in the district.”

Spohn said while the going is currently difficult, there is definitely light on the horizon. She said the first vaccines could potentially arrive as early as the end of the month, and those will be a key component of getting the pandemic under control.

“Right now, a vaccine is on the horizon which is a very good thing,” Spohn said. “We’re extremely excited in public health because that’s going to be the beginning of the end for us. If we can get a vaccine that has great efficacy, that people can trust and that people will take, that’s our best method to getting some control on this pandemic.”

Spohn was asked to facilitate Oklahoma’s vaccine plan, and she submitted it to the state in mid-October. Now that state and national officials have reviewed the plan, she is working on getting it into operation for the district.

Sphon said numerous community partners have been involved in the fight against coronavirus, and they will continue helping once the vaccine plan is in place.

“We’ve had excellent support from our community partners,” Spohn said. “We’re a part of the county government, and the commissioners have been there for us every step of the way. The same goes for city governments and organizations. Now that we’re moving into vaccination, we’re going to be calling on all of these partners again. We’ll need their help to implement some processes where we can get that the vaccine out for those who want it quickly.”