Three years in: How health agencies are handling COVID-19
In a given week, Uncas Health District staff is going to a minimum of three or four events and might administer a COVID-19 vaccine to two people at an event, director Patrick McCormack said ― maybe one person who was hesitant and one who didn’t get the bivalent booster, which came out for the Omicron variant.
It’s a far cry from the days of scheduling 200 vaccines in a day.
Now, local public health workers are incorporating COVID-19 into other public health strategies, offering flu shots and blood pressure screenings as they go to locations such as the Franklin Senior Center, St. Vincent de Paul Place, and the “mobile health hubs” at Three Rivers Community College and Griswold High School. This is done with the help of a van purchased using American Rescue Plan Act dollars.
The health district covers Bozrah, Franklin, Griswold, Lebanon, Lisbon, Montville, Norwich, Preston, Salem, Sprague, and Voluntown.
Three years after the pandemic began, the day-to-day activities of the two local health districts and the state Department of Public Health look very different, but staff is still doing COVID-19 prevention and mitigation work ― and are applying lessons learned and resources added in the pandemic to other public health issues.
As of Thursday, the state had reported 12,258 COVID-associated deaths. There were 156 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 ― though not necessarily because of COVID-19 ― a decrease of 67 from the week prior.
The federal Public Health Emergency is set to expire May 11, and health departments are still figuring out what this means for them. The Department of Health and Human Services says most insurance plans will fully cover COVID-19 vaccines but “out-of-pocket costs for certain treatments may change,” and private insurers will no longer be required to cover laboratory or at-home tests.
McCormack said as part of a federal contract, Uncas put in for funding to buy more at-home test kits and should be getting more soon to distribute to the public.
McCormack said Uncas Health District still has one full-time and one part-time nurse funded through COVID-19 relief dollars, and they’re now focused on connecting with homebound people and doing outreach at events, bringing the vaccine with them.
He still has regular meetings with municipal leaders in Norwich and Griswold, where he goes over COVID-19 recommendations and data.
“What I’ve found is I don’t just do a COVID update,” he said. “When norovirus was starting to peak, I updated on that. When seasonal flu started to peak, I updated on that.”
He also said Uncas and Ledge Light Health District will alternate presenting to the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments at SCCOG meetings.
Ledge Light Deputy Health Director Jennifer Muggeo said now is “an interesting time to be navigating” as public health staff, because there’s a shared desire to move beyond COVID and we’re currently in a good place with cases, but booster coverage is low and people across Connecticut still face serious illness and death from the coronavirus.
Ledge Light covers East Lyme, Groton, Ledyard, Lyme, New London, North Stonington, Old Lyme, Stonington and Waterford.
Muggeo said Ledge Light continues to work with Griffin Hospital, the Medical Reserve Corps, and community pharmacies to make it easier for people to get vaccinated. Vaccines and boosters are available for anyone six months and older at the Public Library of New London on Fridays.
She said if people test positive, Ledge Light staff is available to talk about accessing treatment and protecting those they live with.
“The contact tracing concept has kind of dissipated, in terms of interviewing people in terms of who they had contact with,” Muggeo said, and the focus now is more about being a source of information and support.
“One of our contact tracers still has those conversations with folks about COVID, but has also started to get involved with some of our work to connect with families around childhood immunizations,” she said. “We still have to have the same types of conversations with folks in our community when a child has an elevated blood lead level or when a child has a foodborne illness.”
Muggeo said staff is still learning about what the end of the public health emergency will mean for community members, and will then assess how staff can fill in any gaps.
Dr. Lynn Sosa, acting staff epidemiologist at DPH, said a lot of what the department is looking at is how its activities will or won’t change with the end of the public health emergency. That includes discussions of data collection and frequency of reports.
Gov. Ned Lamont’s office released data on COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths every day earlier in the pandemic, whereas now it’s only on Thursdays. Sosa said the state continues to report data to the CDC, which won’t change.
One of the top messages from DPH now is a push for people to get the bivalent booster. According to the CDC, as of March 8, 83.1% of Connecticut’s population has gotten the initial two-shot series but only 24.6% received the bivalent booster.
DPH spokesperson Chris Boyle said especially since omicron, the department has been able to ramp up and ramp down activities as needed.
“Part of what we’re trying to do is figure out how the work we’re doing for COVID-19 fits into our everyday work,” Sosa said, “because again, COVID-19 is not gone; it’s here to stay.”