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‘A Whole Different Level Of Frustration’: Public Health Districts Face Unexpected Obstacles Fighting COVID-19

Julie Pryde is administrator of the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District.

CHAMPAIGN – Since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District has been working with the local health care system to mitigate the spread of the disease.

The district’s pandemic plan includes taking action to notify and monitor people who may have been exposed to COVID-19, as well as work with local health care providers to monitor those with symptoms who have been placed in isolation, whether in the hospital or at home.

CU Public Health Administrator Julie Pryde said even with plans in place, her agency and local health care providers are running into problems they did not anticipate.

“What I don’t think any of us took into account was what we’re seeing now with the lack of resources,” Pryde said. “So even if you happen to be a place that has a lot of money… you just can’t go out and buy these items that are needed: personal protective equipment, ventilators, testing supplies.

“So, this is a whole different level of frustration than I’ve experienced before. And it’s not just here it is, it’s across the entire country.”

Pryde said, despite the unexpected challenges, the agency has continued to conduct contact tracing—a process that involves identifying people with confirmed COVID-19 cases and figuring out who they’ve recently interacted with, then providing instruction via phone to those people on how to quarantine themselves and monitor for symptoms.

The workload has increased as the number of COVID-19 cases in Champaign County has risen to 85 as of Sunday, including two deaths.

So Pryde said her agency has shifted staff from certain areas—such as dental or maternal and child health—to work on contact tracing and following people in isolation and quarantine.

“We also staff a four-person hotline, seven days a week,” Pryde said. 

Due to a nationwide shortages of test materials, Pryde said COVID-19 testing in Champaign County remains limited to those who meet certain criteria set by the Illinois Department of Public Health.

“Unfortunately we have to prioritize with what we have,” Pryde said. “We’re still, as a country, not there, and we’re not getting the support that’s needed to do the testing. It’s just frustrating.”

Commercial labs are far behind right now on testing, saying it can take up to 10 days to get results back, Pryde said.

To help with the backlog—and prevent state public health labs from being overwhelmed—Carle and the University of Illinois worked together to launch on-site testing in late March. They coordinate with other area health care providers to analyze samples collected from patients throughout Champaign County.

Pryde said that helps speed the process, but limited testing materials prevent them from expanding criteria to test more people as they would like. 

Commercial labs are also working on developing antibody testing that could determine if people have the antibodies that provide immunity against COVID-19, even if they never showed symptoms or received a diagnosis. 

Pryde said whenever antibody testing becomes available, local researchers will be ready to study how effective the tests are.

“Carle and U of I already has a study designed and ready to validate anything that comes down the pike because everything that will be coming down will be under an ‘emergency use authorization,’” she said. “So they will need to be vetted because we’re not going to waste time and money on something that is ineffective.”

One of the most frustrating things for public health departments at both the state and local level is the feeling that they’re competing with one another for limited supplies, Pryde said.

“It’s turned into a ridiculous almost, like, cage match of people trying to compete with each other for resources. That is not how this should be happening,” she said.

Instead, Pryde said supplies would ideally be sourced by the federal government, manufactured on a large scale and distributed based on a plan, depending on either population or hot spots.

“It shouldn’t be that local (departments), states, cities are competing with each other trying to get the same resources and then inadvertently raising the price of them up,” Pryde said.

In the event that there’s a sudden spike in COVID-19 in Champaign County, Pryde said local hospitals are ready to increase their capacity to meet the need.

“The hospitals have always taken pandemic preparedness seriously,” she said. 

Both Carle and OSF have “geared up” and have extra capacity at their hospitals. 

“And then beyond that, there is also a plan to set up a surge facility should it become necessary,” Pryde said. “At the moment, it’s not looking like that will happen, at least with this first wave.”

Pryde said CU Public Health has not yet received the funding promised from the federal government to assist with the additional work of managing the pandemic. 

But she did find out recently how much money is slated to come in: $76,000 for CU Public Health and just over $60,000 for the County.

Pryde said the amount is disappointing because it only covers the additional costs they’ve incurred over the past several weeks, not leaving much for the costs that are still to come. 

“We’re going to have to gear up, at some point, for mass vaccination,” Pryde said. “We’re going to have to gear up for possibly mass testing, if and when that ever becomes as plentiful as we would like.”

She said the County Board of Health has asked that their $470,000 fund balance, which was set aside for public health emergencies, be placed in the regular budget for the County Health Department.

CU Public Health also has an emergency fund they can tap into if needed.

As for whether Champaign County has reached a “peak” in COVID-19 cases, Pryde said it’s still too soon to say.

“We do know that people are doing a pretty good job overall of (abiding by) the stay-at-home order, (which) has helped our entire state and our community a great deal,” she said. 

But the number of COVID-19 cases has been “pretty steady.” 

Pryde said she’d like to remind everyone that the goal of continuing to practice social distancing is to keep the number of COVID-19 cases low enough, and spread out long enough, to prevent the healthcare system from getting overwhelmed.

“So far, so good on that,” Pryde said. “I just knocked on wood.”

Follow Christine on Twitter: @CTHerman

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Christine Herman

Christine Herman is a Ph.D. chemist turned audio journalist who covers health for the Illinois Newsroom. Her reporting for Illinois Public Media/WILL has received awards from the Illinois Associated Press Broadcasters Association, the Public Media Journalists Association and has reached both regional and national audiences through WILL's health reporting partnership with Side Effects Public Media, NPR and Kaiser Health News. Christine started at WILL in 2015.

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