Throughout the year, there are 60 people on the Emergency Preparedness Response Team whose main focus is to be ready for anything.
But once the pandemic hit, they knew it was going to take more than 60 people.
“Much of our time was taken up and much of the effort was to do swabbing of people, to complete the testing that was necessary. Then as time moved forward and we had vaccine become available, vaccinations have now taken over the majority of the activity,” explained Tim Wiedrich, the Section Chief of Health Resources & Response for NDDoH.
Over the last 18 months, the department has brought in around 473 temporary employees which included nurses, EMS and other health professionals.
“The number of nursing home shifts that we filled since October of 2020 — 3,253 of those shifts. If we look at the number of vaccines this crew has administered it’s a little over 12,000,” explained Wiedrich.
With the drop in cases, half of those people are returning to the workforce but Wiedrich says it’s still not over.
“While we’re reducing the level of staff, we don’t want to reduce too far so we can’t meet our existing workload or we’re not in a strong position to respond to whatever else might need to occur in the next several months,” said Wiedrich.
Bringing in temporary staff was just one aspect in the fight against COVID, as every department like the Healthy and Safe Community section had to put their programs on pause and shift to a COVID response.
“We have everything from cancer prevention and control and tobacco prevention and control to chronic disease programs such as oral health. We have heart disease, we have diabetes programs, we have programs that relate to family health and wellness, such as injury prevention,” explained Kim Mertz, the Section Chief for the Healthy and Safe Community for the NDDOH.
Mertz says staff were involved in every aspect from grant writing to setting up the public health hotline and even having a hand in the ND Smart Restart plan.
As staff start to transition back to their normal roles, COVID is still playing a part.
“For an example, our Women’s Way program helps women get breast and cervical cancer screenings. During COVID many women forewent– They didn’t get those screenings done. And so right now that program has a huge focus making sure to let women know that it’s safe to go back and get those screenings,” explained Mertz.
At the height of the pandemic, the public health hotline was receiving 900 calls a day from all over the state and only had 15 people to answer questions.
But with the drop in cases, they say, on average, they’re seeing 50 calls a day.
Wiedrich says in his 30 year long career with the department, this is the longest time the Emergency Preparedness Response Team has been activated.