Health agents in demand: How COVID-19 has changed their jobs

  • Emma Dragon is a member of the Hadley Board of Health. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • FILE - In this Feb. 7, 2018 file photo, a nurse prepares a flu shot at the Salvation Army in Atlanta. AP PHOTO/DAVID GOLDMAN  

Published: 3/29/2020 6:25:28 PM

In recent days, the Gazette reached out to several health agents throughout Hampshire County and Holyoke to get perspective about how their jobs have changed since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

All said their offices are busier than normal, some need more staff and money to meet the demand of COVID-19 and other routine business and they, like the residents they serve, are nervous about the unknown the future will bring.

Holyoke

Typically, Holyoke’s Public Health Director Sean Gonsalves’ office is busy as several inspectors, two clerks and a public health nurse go about their usual activities as a Board of Health. Much of that work is based on inspections and permitting businesses and homes, he said. But these are not typical times.

“These are strange times that we live in,” Gonsalves said in an email Wednesday. “Things are certainly different from even two weeks ago.”

Now, the office is largely responding to the public health and regulatory challenges brought on by COVID-19, he said.

“Much of my time is devoted to reaching out to individual businesses to address specific concerns or answer questions that have arisen from this sudden change in the way business is conducted,” he said.

Gonsalves is also working to coordinate information about confirmed and presumed cases of COVID-19 in Holyoke with the public health nurse, Deborah Schaier, as well health care providers and first responders, he said. The team uses the Massachusetts Virtual Epidemiologic Network, or MAVEN, to coordinate with the state epidemiologist’s office to gather information about communicable diseases and track their spread, he added.

“We communicate not only with the hospitals, but also EMS, firefighters, nursing homes, funeral homes and schools,” Gonsalves said. “A single case could expose a member or members of each of these institutions to the virus.”

The primary challenge Gonsalves said he faces is spreading accurate information, given the frequent updating of federal, state and local policies.

“A letter I send today about best practices could be irrelevant by the time it is opened,” he said. “This also goes for tracking the virus. With the wholly inadequate amount of testing that is available, people who may have the virus are not able to be tested. This limits our access to accurate numbers of positive cases in the area.”

Unfortunately, Gonsalves said, he expects the number of cases to continue to rise as more testing becomes available. He said people are still not taking the virus seriously, continuing to spread it in the community. His office and its staff are preparing for circumstances that have not been seen in recent memory, he said.

“There may be a need to prop up emergency spaces for quarantine or hospital overflow,” Gonsalves said. “People will be out of work, have reduced access to food and medical attention … The list of possible needs is long and it’s not immediately clear how hard this area will be hit.”

Easthampton

In Easthampton, health agent Bri Eichstaedt spends most of her day responding to COVID-19 calls and emails from residents and business owners.

After Gov. Charlie Baker ordered nonessential businesses to close on Monday, local business owners had lots of questions about whether they qualify as essential. Residents are also calling to complain about people not properly practicing social distancing in businesses. One difficulty is keeping restaurants and businesses up-to-speed with changing regulations since the pandemic began, Eichstaedt said.

The health agent believes that a big part of her job is keeping people informed.

“I’m big on updating the public on social media and our website,” she said.

She also said that she communicates regularly with health agents in other communities.

When asked what challenges she was facing Eichstaedt pointed to “the unknown.”

“It’s scary not knowing how many cases we’re going to get,” she said.

Eichstaedt also noted that the rest of her job doesn’t stop, and that she is still responsible for such things as housing complaints and requests for food truck permits.

“There’s going to be a huge backlog,” she said of the work that has taken a backseat.

As for a silver lining to the epidemic, Eichstaedt noted the attention this has brought to public health.

“I think public health has been in the dark a lot,” she said. “This has really shed a light on how important public health is.”

Amherst, Hadley

In Amherst, each weekday begins with a leadership team meeting involving public health, public safety and public works department heads, Assistant Town Manager David Ziomek said.

This meeting leads to assignments that need to be complete as the day progresses, with a check in by day’s end to determine where things stand.

“We’ve got people handling COVID-19 responses at all levels of the organization,” Ziomek said.

The Town Council is meeting each Monday to get briefed by officials.

In Hadley, meanwhile, Emma Dragon, a Board of Health member who is the delegated contact to the town’s Unified Command Team, told the Select Board this week that the workload related to COVID-19 is going far beyond normal duties, and is specialized to public health.

“This is a totally different situation with totally different needs that need to be met,” Dragon said.

With these demands, which have included numerous phone calls from residents with questions and concerns about the coronavirus, Dragon made an appeal to the board for $11,290 in emergency funding.

That emergency funding, based on needs identified in March, would be mostly for adding at least $2,000 in salaries per week, for a total of $8,600, along with about $2,700 for various personal protective equipment.

The money for salaries would include hiring a full-time health department coordinator, giving two more hours to the town nurse and adding 10 hours per week for health department inspections

The health department coordinator would handle public communications and statements, collaborate with regional, state and national entities and coordinate with town departments.

The nurse would monitor Hadley cases in MAVEN. Dragon said the health board is supposed to be in regular contact with anyone diagnosed with COVID-19 and to do mandated contact tracing, though a delay in testing and not having all information about coronavirus cases in the MAVEN system makes this a challenging task.

The stepped-up inspections relate to the need for food safety inspection compliance.


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