'An ultra marathon': Health department employees recall response to pandemic – Times Reporter


DOVER — The two-year long COVID-19 pandemic has required the staff of the Tuscarawas County Health Department to demonstrate resilience and adaptability as they have dealt with a disease that has claimed the lives of at least 488 county residents and sickened more than 20,000. 
“I think for all of us, not only those in public health, we definitely did not anticipate that it would last this long,” Health Commissioner Katie Seward said. “We knew that it would be a marathon and not a sprint, but it’s been like an ultra marathon.”
More:COVID-19 was most-reported communicable disease in 2021 in Tuscarawas County
More:High number of COVID patients, staff shortages put hospitals at ‘tipping point’
Staff members worked long hours handling pandemic-related duties, all the while continuing to provide essential services such as food safety inspections, well and septic inspections and medical services for county residents and WIC (Women, Infant and Children) program clients. 
More:First case of Omicron variant reported in Tuscarawas County
The T-R talked to several health department employees about their experience over the last two years. Here is what they had to say:
Jennifer Demuth, director of promotion and community relations for the agency, joined the health department just months before the pandemic began.
Once the first COVID-19 cases were diagnosed in Ohio in March 2020, the large conference room at the health department was turned into an emergency operations center.
“It was really impressive to me to see how everyone came together in such a good way,” Demuth said. 
She noted that there was not a single staff member who wasn’t involved in some way in the agency’s COVID response. Those who weren’t directly involved made sure everything else was taken care of. 
“It was just so impressive to see that. It makes you feel good about having joined that organization,” she said.
At times, it was also rough.
“At first everyone was so grateful for information,” she said. “As the pandemic seemed to go on and on, then we had people say, quit telling us. You’re trying to scare us, which in truth was never what we wanted to do. That was challenging, because I’m like most people here. We just like to help people.”
Sometimes, Demuth was called in to help with contract tracing calls.
“I had times where I had to tell a parent, your child won’t be eligible to play in a ballgame. That’s hard information to give. Some folks are very understanding, and some folks were understandably upset and let us know. Those times are very disheartening because you’re just doing your job and you’re just trying to follow the mandates that were set, not by us, but by the Ohio Department of Health.”
Some days were good, others not so much during the pandemic.
“The community would send cards,” Demuth said. “We would get thank yous from people on the phone, too. They’d drop off cookies. All of those things seemed to come really at the right time. 
“There were days I would have to put out the death notices. There were days, especially in December 2020 when we had eight death notices in one day, when it was just devastating because every time I would put one up I would think, that’s somebody’s family that now has a hole. 
“You wish that person could have been saved. It’s saddening, but it always worked out that when we had days like that, someone would show up with cookies or the next phone call you took, someone would say, oh thank you so much.”
Amy Kaser, the health department’s director of nursing, had to balance her normal duties with those of dealing with COVID-19 during the pandemic.
She and other members of the staff worked 12 to 16 hours a day, seven days a week, including holidays, at the office on E. Iron Avenue.
Health department employees would get calls from laboratories when a positive COVID-19 test result was found. They would take turns taking the on-call phone, nicknamed Precious, home with them, and calls would come in at 10 p.m., midnight or even 2 a.m. Then they would have to get up at 6 a.m. to be at work at 7. 
“Even though we were doing a lot of COVID stuff, my regular normal job did not stop,” Kaser said.
There were reports to fill out and grants to apply for. During the pandemic, Tuscarawas County had three active tuberculosis cases that had to be monitored. The agency also had to administer back-to-school vaccines and operated a drive-thru flu clinic, she said.
Every day at 2 o’clock, the staff would stop what they were doing to watch Gov. Mike DeWine’s daily COVID-19 briefing.
“We were never given a heads up on what the next thing that was coming, other than hey, you might want to watch the governor today,” she said. 
Kaser said, she felt helpless until the COVID-19 vaccine arrived.
“As a nurse, I never felt so helpless talking to an individual on the phone, and saying is somebody there with you that can call 911 right now,” she said. “I’ve done that more than once throughout this. You need somebody to call 911 for you right now. I’ll stay on the line with you until they get there.
“I can’t tell you how many times I did that throughout this pandemic, only to hang up and getting another phone call with people yelling at me, calling me a Nazi, telling me they’re going to come protest here, they’re threatening my health commissioner, they’re threatening my family, and that’s OK? That’s not OK. When did that become OK?”
Kaser noted the importance of agencies like the Tuscarawas County Health Department. Because of public health, we don’t have sewage running in the streets or people getting sick from E. coli, she said.
“We’ve always been here. We’re always going to be here. These are things we do every day to keep the public safe. You don’t hear about it, because we’re doing it,” Kaser said.
Chelsea Martin, a communicable disease nurse, was heavily involved in the daily COVID-19 work, doing case investigations, interviews, school monitoring, long-term care monitoring and identifying outbreaks.
Like other health department employees at the time, she would come to work in the dark and leave when it was dark.
“In the beginning people wanted answers and needed answers, and we felt like we should be here to answer their questions, especially for the people who were getting their diagnoses and their positive tests over the weekend. We were working a lot of hours,” Martin said.
The worst part of the pandemic was getting criticism from the public.
“I went into nursing because obviously I wanted to help people,” she said. “I didn’t think that I would end up working a pandemic, but it happened and we adapted and responded.
“We had to learn that with that and being in the role of public health, criticism is just going to come with that as it does with other jobs. We had to learn how to adjust to that. I feel like we did so in a positive manner once we really had the support of each other.”
She said there was a lot of support from the community as well. One evening, the parents of one of her friends dropped off dinner for her.
“Those moments were just encouraging. It made you then realize, OK, yeah, even if you have a whole bunch of bad stuff happen that day, there were those good moments and those people did step up and help us and give us the encouragement that we needed to keep pushing forward, to keep helping the community as a whole.”
The pandemic helped Martin grow as a nurse, she said. She learned how to be more resilient and more adaptable to ever-changing situations.
Seward said the pandemic lasted longer in Tuscarawas County, “simply because we were one of the first rural counties in Ohio to have a positive COVID case. So our story kind of started about a month or so ahead of some of our other rural counties.” 
The first wave of the pandemic occurred around June 2020, linked to meat packing plants in surrounding counties that had employees living in Tuscarawas County. The county was averaging 16 to 20 cases a day.
At that time, the health department started to look at what it needed resource-wise. Since many of the employees at the meat packing plants were Hispanic, the agency hired a full-time translator. 
By the end of 2020, the Ohio Department of Health contracted with an agency that took over contract tracing, case notification and investigation. Many health departments around Ohio chose to do that, but Tuscarawas County did not.
“We wanted it to be names and voices that people recognized and knew that we were out there and we cared about them and how they were doing,” Seward said. “That was a big undertaking for us to do that and continue services but it was just something we felt really strongly about and something that we continued to do throughout the pandemic.”
Seward said most people don’t realize that health department employees had contact with either a family member of an individual who died of the virus or that individual prior to their death.
“It was hard then when you would see things on social media that would say that it (COVID-19) isn’t real or that it’s just like a cold or the flu when we had these very real and hard conversations with individuals who had just lost someone or even worse, the individual we had talked to just a few days ago and they seemed fine and within a few days we were notified that they had passed,” she said. 
“That was hard.”
Looking back at the pandemic, Seward said, “It’s been a long couple of years, full of lots of ups and downs and moments of hope and moments of frustration and moments of sadness, I think. It’s been definitely a journey that we could not have planned for.”
Weekly COVID report
As of Friday, 493 people had died from COVID-related causes in Tuscarawas County, according to the Tuscarawas County Health Department. Two of those deaths occurred between March 24 and Thursday. The county health department reported 11 new COVID-19 cases in the same time frame. The county had 84 active cases on Friday.



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