Emergency Mgmt Director on COVID Surge

Riley Hebert

Emergency Mgmt Director on COVID Surge

8 mins
January 14, 2021

The coronavirus continues to run rampant through the country, state and even here in Clark County.

I spoke with John Ross, Clark County’s Emergency Management Director, he discussed some of the impacts Clark County has seen due to COVID-19.

Question:  “How are things looking right now in regards to coronavirus numbers in Clark County?”

Ross:  “We have seen a significant surge in case numbers over the last month to six weeks, weeks especially.  Just as a matter of comparison, on October 1st, we had 436 lab confirmed positive cases in the county and we had 9 people hospitalized and, unfortunately, we had 8 people who had passed away.  Turning forward to November 3rd, we were at 1,058 confirmed positive test results, we had 26 people that were hospitalized at that time and, unfortunately, we had 18 lab confirmed case deaths in the county at that point.  So, a very significant increase during the month of October and into the month of November, that dramatic increase has continued.  We’re over 1,700 active confirmed cases and 30 confirmed case deaths in the county at this point, so the trend is moving upward in a pretty significant way.

The number of active cases is increasing by significant numbers, which is creating its own set of challenges as far as things such as contact tracing.  We’re seeing spread throughout the county.  The situation is not looking as good as it was earlier in the spring and summer.”

Question:  “Why is that?  Why do we seem to be going in this opposite direction compared to what we were seeing earlier this year?”

Ross:  “I think there’s several factors involved and not being an epidemiologist, I can’t get into exact reasoning, but some of the factors, I believe, are contributing is that the weather is turning cooler so people are inside more.  Not as many opportunities to be outside.  That may be a factor.  The fact that people are gathering more than they were earlier in the year.  Unfortunately, in my observations, not seeing as many people wearing the face coverings as you would hope and as we would need to help combat the spread of this disease.  But we are seeing it all over the county.  We’re seeing it in a community spread type of environment where the factors that are contributing to it, including what I mentioned already are definitely working against us.”

Question:  “You mentioned the contact tracing before.  At one point, the Health Department had said they were behind on that struggling with that due to the increase in cases.  Do you know, have they been able to get caught up or are they still struggling?”

Ross:  “I don’t have specifics as to the numbers.  I know it’s a very daunting task and they’re working extremely hard on it.  I believe they are adding one or two additional temporary staff members to help assist with that.  I’m not sure exactly where in the process we are with those hirings at this point.  But we’re trying to bring on extra help so we can do the best we can.  I know it’s a challenge, not only in Clark County, but in other counties as well.  Some of our neighboring counties have actually changed their standards as far as how they’re doing their contact tracing simply because of the sheer volume of contact tracing that needs to be done and the staffing available.”

Question:  “Another thing I want to mention is the county has taken some steps to try and combat the coronavirus including limiting access to facilities as well as, at the recent county board meeting, they approved to continue a public health declaration.  Can you talk a little more about those particular items?”

Ross:  “We did, through the county’s public health risk policy, we did inact restrictions on access to county facilities.  We are encouraging people to do their business with county facilities through alternate means via telephone, website links, mail, email, those types of opportunities.  We also understand that some people don’t have that option and some business will have to be conducted in person.  We’re asking that they contact the department that they need to do business with to make an appointment so they can have that service delivered.  This is being done to help protect the employees and the public from any risk exposures that we can avoid for their safety as well as the safety of the employees.  We want to be able to keep delivering these services and by minimizing the chances of having significant issues with staff being out of the office or unavailable being related to COVID, whether it’s quarantine or whether they are personally impacted, we want to make sure we can keep delivering the services and this is one way that we believe we can do that while still protecting everybody.”

“The courts are still functioning.  They’re doing a lot of their business via virtual means, such as Zoom meetings, but they are still having the required in person appearances.  If anybody has court appearances they can certainly contact the courts to find out what method they should use or if they want to request an in person hearing, they can certainly work with the court and the court will make those decisions based on the cases.  Again, we want everybody to have access to the services that we provide, but we’re just asking them to understand that we need to do the delivery a little bit differently for now.”

“On October 28th, our County Board Chair, our Administrative Coordinator and Public Health Officer signed a Public Health Emergency Declaration because of the recent surge in cases and activity.  We wanted to make sure that we were in the best position to respond to those needs.  The county board, on November 10th, approved a resolution, as required, to extend that for 60 days.  That resolution allows for certain authorities to be granted to myself, to the Board Chair and Administrative Coordinator primarily around things such as emergency purchasing, emergency hiring or contracting for services if that need were to arise.  We are continuing to operate the PPE distribution systems that we have with both internal and external partners.  That is indeed a challenge for us, but we want to have that flexibility to be able to make those purchases, do those steps.  And this gives us that flexibility to do that outside of the normal policies and procedures related to approvals, and committees and budgeting, etc.

Question:  “One of the reasons we’re putting these items into place is to keep from overwhelming our hospitals.  I know our hospitals are struggling right now.  Can you talk about that?”

Ross:  “We want to do everything we can to protect the safety and well being of our residents and visitors and everyone out there.  We need the public’s help to do this.  We need people to follow the recommendations of wearing the face coverings when they can.  We understand some people have medical reasons why they can’t.  Wear the face coverings when you can.  Practice good physical distancing.  Practice the good hand hygiene.  Limit social gatherings.  Limit your social circles.  Ideally, stay home as much as you can.  Make those essential trips when you have too.  We can still support our local businesses through curbside pick, takeout and delivery options.  But, with the holidays coming up, that’s obviously the limiting of social gatherings and it’s going to be a difficult thing to ask for.”

“But this is all being done to try to control the increase in cases and try to reduce the demands that are being placed on our healthcare system.  You see media reports of hospitals nearing capacity.  That is another big concern.  That’s not just in Clark County.  It’s all over the state.  It’s all over the country.  We need to make sure that we have those beds available, not only for people with COVID that need medical attention, but all the other every day type events that happen that people need medical care for.  And we need to keep as many of those beds as free as possible so people can get the care when they need it.”

“One thing that we’ve been doing since very early on in this situation is I am facilitating emergency operation center briefing with key stakeholders in the county, including our two hospitals, to keep up to date on the situations they’re facing or any unmet needs or concerns they have.  So, we’re staying in contact, we’re staying in touch with them to maximize our ability to help them in their response if an issue should arrive.  But, like I said, we need to the public to help us out by following those guidelines and doing what’s asked of them as much as possible to try and reduce that spread and try and get a handle on the spread of this virus.”

Question:  “If people choose not to follow the guidelines on mask usage, hand washing, social distancing, etc., where do you see Clark County in a couple months?”

Ross:  “If we don’t get a handle on things here in the near future, and we need the public’s help with this, I see us continuing to head in the direction we’re heading in right now, which is a rapid increase in cases.  Unfortunately, more people losing their battles with COVID.  Loss of life is a definite tragedy and we want to do everything we can to avoid that, but we can’t do it alone.  The governor put out a message about unity and people getting involved and doing what they need too.  We understand that during this time of year especially with the holidays, it’s a very difficult ask.  It affects us personally as well as professionally too.  We are not immune to the difficulties of some of those same decisions.  We are asking the public to do what they can just as we are trying to do everything that we can ourselves.”

“We need everybody to come together right now.  And there’s hope of a vaccine in the not too distant future, but it’s not going to be an immediate thing.  So, we still have to continue working diligently the way we are until we can get ahead of this virus and get things controlled to where then when we get to points of the vaccine being more readily available and being out there, then we can get people to, hopefully, take that vaccine and we can start getting back to a new sense of normal.

Question:  “Is there anything else you’d like people to know?”

Ross:  “Yes, I would.  I would like to point people to, not only the Clark County website, we have a COVID-19 page on there.  And there is a data dashboard that is on that website.  The 2nd page of that dashboard is not very user friendly when it comes to mobile devices.  So, just a fare warning about that.  But that dashboard has daily updates, Monday-Friday, it’s usually updated by about 4pm in the afternoon.  It shows our case count and other data that is pertinent to where we’re at.  On the second page of that dashboard, there’s actually a map that is color coded that shows by municipality, and you can actually toggle it so it shows by school district, to look at where active cases are.  Again, this changes every day, so you want to check back frequently.”

This article was orginally reported by
Riley Hebert

Riley Hebert is news director for Central Wisconsin Broadcasting.