The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has in some cases caused local businesses and agencies to radically alter how they operate on a daily basis.
Those changes have only been strengthened with the Owensboro region moving into the state’s Red Zone. But officials with city and county government, law enforcement and regional health departments said they have been able to maintain much of their usual services, with some adjustments.
Health departments have been ground zero for handling much of the COVID-19 testing and contact tracing since the pandemic struck Kentucky in March. The recent surge in local cases has hampered the effectiveness of contact tracing, simply because contract tracers have large caseloads to track.
“When you have this volume of cases, it’s difficult to do contact tracing,” said Clay Horton, director of the Green River District Health Department. “... It’s not as effective when you have this much spread in the community.”
Because contact tracers are handling an overload of cases, sometimes people who have tested positive for COVID-19 are drafted into the effort of informing their family members or friends who might have also been exposed.
“Because we don’t have the time,” Horton said.
In addition to handling pandemic testing and tracing, “we are still providing our core health services,” Horton said. “COVID-19 certainly eats up most of our resources now.”
The health department was able to hire a staff to focus solely on contact tracing with federal funds through the CARES Act. That has helped the department also maintain focus on its other duties.
“We have close to 40 people who work with us now that are doing contact tracing,” Horton said. “That has enabled much of our staff to (provide) some of those core health services.” The other services the health department provides, such as influenza vaccinations and clinics, are about as busy now as they were before the pandemic, Horton said.
“Some of our clinic services are down, but out WIC (Women, Infants and Children) ... that program is very busy,” Horton said. “Our numbers have not dropped off at all. We had lots of takers on our flu vaccine.”
The health department’s ability to keep its staff of hired contact tracers into the new year is unclear. The health department could lose those workers “if Congress doesn’t renew the CARES Act,” Horton said.
Alma Fink, nursing supervisor for the Muhlenberg County Health Department, said the department works with a regional contract tracing team. “Our regional team ... has been good at picking up some of the caseload” for the department.
“As we get more cases, we are getting a little more overloaded than we would be,” she said. While tracers are working as quickly as possible, the office still hears from people concerned they have been infected.
“Some people do have numerous contacts,” Fink said. “It’s a process to get in touch with everybody. We do have people who call and say, ‘I haven’t been called yet.’ ”
City and county government made changes to how they operated in the early days of the pandemic. With Daviess County in the “Red Zone” for case numbers, officials have taken some additional steps.
“We have more people working from home,” Owensboro City Manager Nate Pagan said. City work crews, who have to be out in the community, are working staggered shifts. That change was made before the county entered the Red Zone, Pagan said.
“We accommodate (city employees) who have underlying health conditions,” he said. “We accommodate and are being as flexible as we can be.”
Most city workers have jobs that require them to be in the community. “Between police, fire and public works, that’s 80% of our workforce,” Pagan said.
City services are the same. “We are open the same hours. Our services are available on-line,” he said. “We have not reduced the scope of our services.”
Daviess County Judge-Executive Al Mattingly said the county did not change policies after it entered the Red Zone, but it “reinforced” policies that were already in effect.
“We reinforced our mandates to employees to avoid large groups, to social distance, to wear masks, to wash hands,” Mattingly said. “... We are trying to do all of the things that have been recommended by the President’s office and the Governor’s office.”
Althrough a few county workers have been quarantined at times, “It has not affected county operations. Not at all,” Mattingly said.
“Most of the infections are secondary,” with workers contracting the virus from outside of work rather than employees spreading it to one another, he said.
Owensboro Fire Department Battalion Chief Steve Leonard said while the department takes numerous precautions to reduce exposure to COVID-19, it’s not much different from what firefighters do regularly.
“Our personnel is used to suiting up in attire and equipment that protects us,” Leonard said. “This is just equipment that protects us from a different type of incident.”
OFD has limited some services, such as code enforcement and inspections, due to the pandemic, Leonard said.
“We limit the amount of training we do,” he said.
Firefighters at different firehouses are kept separate, and if a firefighter from another station has to come to the department’s administrative offices at Station One, the meeting is held outdoors, Leonard said. When firefighters or other emergency responders go on a call for service, 911 dispatch screens the call to determine if anyone in the home has symptoms of COVID or a diagnosis.
“If they are COVID positive, we will take an extra layer of precautions” at the scene, Leonard said.
The department has maintained its standard level of emergency services, he said.
“Us being protected allows us to better protect the community,” Leonard said.
Daviess County Fire Chief Jeremy Smith said the restrictions the department put in place at the outset of the pandemic haven’t changed.
“As far as what we do on a day to day basis, nothing has changed, because we follow very strict guidelines,” Smith said. “We still don’t allow anyone into our stations. ... Our guys are getting temperatures taken twice a day.”
Officer Andrew Boggess, public information officer for the Owensboro Police Department, said the department had “already made the adjustments we could make” before the county entered Red Zone status. Reports that do not require an officer’s presence are taken over the phone and officers are required to use face masks and to social distance as much as they can.
“It’s not always possible in our profession, but we are doing as much as possible” and are following recommendations to reduce contact with the virus, Boggess said.
Operations haven’t been negatively impacted by quarantines, Boggess said.
“So far, it hasn’t affected our ability to operate in the manner we need to operate,” Boggess said.
If officers had to quarantine to where it could affect staffing on a shift, “we are always prepared to make those adjustments,” he said.
Major Barry Smith, chief deputy for the Daviess County Sheriff’s Department, said patrol deputies and the tax office are operating with precautions, such as masks, and the tax office is open to the public. People entering the county courthouse to visit the tax office are required to wear face masks and social distance.
With tax payment season underway, the tax office would normally be busy with people. While people can pay their taxes in person, the office is asking people to pay them by mail instead, he said.
“It limits the exposure” for the public and staff, he said.
With the number of people allowed in the tax office limited, people coming to pay in person are having to line up in the hall.
People can pay their taxes over the phone with a credit card, with a 2.5% fee added by the card companies. “But there’s no fee with mailing it whatsoever,” Smith said.
Regular law enforcement operations have continued at the sheriff’s office. “We have had times when people have been off (with a COVID diagnosis) or quarantined,” Smith said. But “overall, we have been able to maintain business as usual.”
James Mayse, 270-691-7303, email@example.com, Twitter: @JamesMayse