Summit County health, emergency departments push to address staffing concerns during pandemic |

Summit County health, emergency departments push to address staffing concerns during pandemic

The Summit County emergency operations center in Frisco is pictured March 27.
Liz Copan /

FRISCO — As residents and Summit County officials continue to stare into the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and respond to the unprecedented health and economic impacts, the county’s emergency manager is shifting his gaze back to the area’s other natural hazards to prepare for the seasons ahead.

The Summit County Office of Emergency Management is looking to bring on some extra help in the form of a temporary COVID-19 Emergency Coordinator, who will ultimately be tasked with taking over the day-to-day operations of the office’s novel coronavirus response. The new hire will give Emergency Manager Brian Bovaird the freedom to start taking other important projects off of the backburner like the county’s wildfire mitigation and spring runoff plans.

“These large incidents serve like a magnifying glass to all of the things you knew were your weaknesses,” said Bovaird. “For us that’s staffing, and having a one person emergency management office when a global pandemic hits. … This is so vastly different from any other incident anyone has dealt with. So there’s been a huge learning curve. It’s been exhausting trying to juggle all the pieces of the puzzle.”

Earlier this year Bovaird said the county began a new program to help the Office of Emergency Management prepare for a possible surge. The program would identify individuals already working with the county who’s jobs could be updated with new responsibilities during emergency responses to help deal with massive logistics and planning efforts within the county’s Emergency Operations Center.

Bovaird noted that officials were hoping to train employees to handle six key posts within the operations center, including specialists in logistics, planning, finances and documentation, along with a situation unit leader (someone to compiles widespread information for briefs and reports) and an EOC manager to oversee daily operations in the center.

“It’s next to impossible to serve as the EOC manager and the director of emergency management,” Bovaird said. “One of the biggest things is having that overall picture, and hanging in the EOC it’s easy to get in the weeds keeping that system running. I don’t have the ability to really absorb all the information that’s coming in, and those really critical conversations with stakeholders around the county have been limited because of how much of my time is spent managing the EOC.”

Though, the program hadn’t fallen into place before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and there’s no time to train people on the fly. As the complexity of the new coronavirus response continues to grow — Bovaird noted that while response efforts continue, the office is already beginning to move into overlapping recovery and reimbursement phases — more help is needed.

The new COVID-19 Emergency Coordinator will help take the load off of Bovaird, who is hoping to solidify response plans related to other potential emergencies and disasters. Bovaird said his first priority is spring runoff — he noted officials aren’t expecting high-risk circumstances this spring — before moving into other planning efforts around wildfires and evacuations, both of which could create major problems for officials if an emergency were to strike later this year.

The county’s designated evacuation point is at Summit Middle School, but alternatives are already in place for “non-congregate” sheltering during the COVID-19 response, allowing displaced individuals to stay in local hotels instead of grouped together. Though, were there to be a disaster following the lift or easement of public health orders — wherein lodging had already reopened to visitors — officials will have to come up with something else.

“This is the intersection of what’s going on with the COVID-19 response, and how it’s affecting how we’d normally handle other incidents,” Bovaird said. “Just because we’re in the middle of a global pandemic doesn’t mean wildfires stop. … We have a lot of ideas, but not necessarily any solutions yet.”

Realistically, Bovaird said any mass shelter scenario would likely involve a number of combined responses to allow affected individuals to social distance from one another, wherein instead of one school opening as a shelter, it might be all of the county’s school, faith establishments or even the creation of temporary barriers in existing facilities.

Bovaird said the new COVID-19 coordinator could start as early as next week.

“It will be a huge benefit,” Bovaird said. “There’s an urgent need for this person to take over day-to-day operations of the COVID-19 issues so I can focus on all of these things. We have had enough coordination that if something happened today, we’d be on the same page on strategies to be able to adapt and handle it. But there’s a long way we can go, and freeing up some time I’d be allowed to really drill down into these plans and work with stakeholders to minimize any unexpected surprises that may come along.”

Public Health

The Office of Emergency Management isn’t the only department struggling to keep up during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Summit County Public Health Department is also looking to expand its team as new testing capacities continue to up the demand for public messaging and contact tracing.

Some of the department’s responsibilities like restaurant inspections are less in demand during the shutdown, and other programs have had to be sidetracked, like the tobacco prevention and cessation initiative. But responding to the novel coronavirus continues to be the top priority.

The public health team is currently composed of about 15 individuals, including staff members, repurposed county employees and retired staff that have returned to help out. Yet, as testing numbers continue to grow, so has the need for more workers.

According to the county’s Director of Communications Julie Sutor, for every person who tests positive for COVID-19 within the county, the Public Health Department is typically contacting between two and 10 others who came into close contact with that person.

“Every time you get a positive you have to do the contact tracing on that person to understand who were the close contacts, and what we are going to do to isolate and quarantine where we need to,” said Sarah Vaine, assistant county manager. “… We were doing an average of five to 10 tests a day, and when that ramps up to 40-50 tests a day you can see how there’s an exponential jump in the number of people that need to be interviewed.”

Vaine said the department is hoping to double the size of its surveillance and contact tracing team in the near future to assist in carrying the weight, primarily through a stable of volunteers who will undergo training on how to effectively run through the process.

Vaine emphasized that any staffing concerns for the department are relatively new, and were spurred by a jump in testing capacity last week. She went on to laud the department for its preparedness when the crisis hit.

“They did a lot of work in advance of this pandemic, and were able to move into their roles really smoothly,” Vaine said. “…They’re working very long hours, they miss their families, and its certainly stressful feeling the responsibility on their shoulders to manage this as best as possible. But they’ve built a great team, and they’ve prepared for this type of thing for many years to put us in good shape.”

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