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COVID Crusaders: Seizing the invitation for innovation

COVID Crusaders: Seizing the invitation for innovation

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The Grand Island Independent annually recognizes its Man and Woman of the Year but this year the newspaper recognizes several groups of people who were instrumental in getting our community through the year that was 2020. There’s no doubt the fight against COVID-19 was the top story last year. There were many people deserving of recognition for their efforts in 2020.

The Independent News Team chose five areas to recognize for their efforts during the pandemic. The number of individuals who helped others during the last year are too numerous to mention by name so the News Team wrote about the Central District Health Department, nonprofit organizations spotlighted by Heartland United Way, Grand Island Public Schools, first responders and health care providers.

Central District Health Department takes lead in information

Crucial to combating the impact of COVID-19 and reducing community spread have been the ongoing efforts of Central District Health Department.

When the coronavirus arrived in the three-county area covered by CDHD, it did not come slowly and almost immediately the number of positive cases skyrocketed.

It didn’t catch the agency off guard, but it did catch them without adequate resources, CDHD Director Teresa Anderson said.

“Everyone in our agency buckled down and worked extra hours to try to address the need,” Anderson said.

Gov. Pete Ricketts was contacted.

“Along with some of our physicians in our area, we explained to him that our situation was different than across the rest of the state and certainly more intense,” Anderson said. “We were able to get his ear and that was helpful to us.”

Distribution of personal protective equipment went well throughout the year, thanks to a system that had already been in place at CDHD.

“It is what we prepared for in past years and what we’ve exercised in order to be able to meet a need, without ever exactly knowing what that need is going to be,” Anderson said. “We practiced with bringing in supplies and getting them redistributed.”

Environmental Health Supervisor Jeremy Collinson was charged with distribution, and the CDHD garage was filled with supplies that have been distributed weekly based on need.

In 2021, the challenge for CDHD will be getting vaccine to the public in a timely fashion.

Weather will be a factor. The Dec. 29 snowstorm affected CDHD efforts.

“We had a shipment that was supposed to arrive to us today and now it will be delayed and we’re not sure when it will arrive,” Anderson said last Tuesday.

There are also individuals who will decline the vaccine based on personal or political beliefs, or misinformation.

“Our challenge,” Anderson said, “is to help people understand that the vaccine is safe and it is effective.”

Nonprofits meeting demands and challenges of COVID

Many nonprofit organizations, including Heartland United Way of Grand Island, have played a critical role in the community, city and county response to the pandemic.

Since the arrival of COVID-19 in March, the United Way has been coordinating information, efforts and needed resources to help as many people as possible.

“One thing we learned from the floods in March 2019 was the importance of getting key community people together and having everybody on the same page and making sure there was coordinated efforts to work together and avoid duplication, and also to advocate for what’s missing,” HUW President Karen Rathke said.

The first COVID-19 community response meeting, via videoconferencing, was held the second week of March and continued weekly through the year.

“It really has been some great teamwork on a lot of the organizations in the community that have just stepped up and done a tremendous service in helping people, feeding people, sheltering people, providing resources to keep their heat on in their homes, paying for medical assistance,” Rathke said.

The Grand Island/Hall County community also was eager to help.

“We were getting calls that people wanted to help and didn’t know what to do,” Rathke said. “Then we would get calls for help where we didn’t necessarily know how to fix that. Somebody might need a car charged to get to work or they needed diapers. They needed something and just weren’t able to get it during this time.”

HUW created a Facebook page where people could find help and offer that help, which would allow people to better stay inside as COVID-19 cases began to rise.

“It was just an organic process where somebody would say, hey, I need this help and the other people would say, I can help you with that. It was just very heartwarming to see our community just help out people they’ve never met,” Rathke said.

Even with a public mask ordinance approved by the City Council in November and the arrival of a vaccine, there are still COVID-related challenges to be met in 2021.

CARES grant funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services ended on Dec. 31.

“We’re very concerned with what resources will be available to address the needs that are being met right now with some significant dollars that these organizations, ours included, have had access to,” Rathke said. “What we know is that the needs we’re seeing from people, which are significant, aren’t going to just change because the calendar date changes.”

Grand Island Public Schools keeps students learning

When Grand Island Public Schools made the decision on March 15 to move to remote learning due to the increasing number of COVID-19 cases, Superintendent Tawana Grover said, the district worked “quickly and effectively” to respond to the needs of its students.

Grover said the district’s pandemic plan team, which includes approximately 20 people who represent the district’s Leading for Learning, communications, facilities and finance, nutrition services, safety, personnel and information technology teams, met daily throughout the coronavirus pandemic to discuss how to best respond.

“The speed at which our district responded matched the speed of the pandemic,” she said. “At GIPS, our goal was to take care of the whole child — from feeding thousands within 24 hours to providing social-emotional resources virtually to continuing education for all.

“Thanks to our technology infrastructure, we brought educational opportunities into the home of every student in our district. Parents, students, community members and all GIPS staff members adapted and partnered to adopt a common mentality: We are stronger and better together.”

Grover said that with 70% of GIPS students qualifying for free or reduced lunches, it was critical to continue to keep students fed when schools were in remote learning. The district averaged between 3,200 and 4,000 meals a day. The distributed meals consisted of shelf-stable items such as jerky sticks, cheese sticks, crackers, fruit and vegetables.

GIPS also partnered with Verizon to purchase Jetpacks for students who needed internet access. In April, the district said it configured these devices and distributed them to the schools to provide to students in need.

In all, GIPS provided 125 Verizon Jetpacks to identified families in an effort to ensure equitable access to all students for e-learning.

Grover said that the traumas produced by the coronavirus pandemic have “altered our district, state and country” and that GIPS will continue to work to “address the economic demands well after the vaccine is readily available.”

“One challenge is to continue our sense of urgency in unpacking the inequities that were exacerbated during the pandemic,” she said. “COVID-19 has been an invitation for innovation, and GIPS has met the moment by bolstering support for students and staff. Nobody is going to receive a pass for experiencing this pandemic, and regardless of the economic fallout, we must ensure that our students receive the highest quality education so that they can be college- and career-ready.”

First responders met the challenges of COVID-19

For Grand Island emergency medical personnel, COVID-19 substantially has increased the amount of work they have to do before, during and after each call.

Before each call, first responders have to don the appropriate protective equipment, such as a mask, gloves and gown. If they can, they put on that equipment before getting into the ambulance and leaving the station.

“But the majority of the time, were pulling up to a scene and we are donning our protective equipment prior to entering the homes,” said Ryan Cyboron, who is a Grand Island Fire Department paramedic and firefighter.

During the call, the first responders “have to know exactly what you touched” and what the patient may have touched so that they can properly decontaminate afterward, Cyboron said.

After each COVID call, the responders have to do “a deep, thorough clean” and then have to wait a certain amount of time for the cleaning material to kill the virus, Cyboron said.

A typical call runs about an hour from start to finish. COVID calls take a little longer because of the extra steps required, he said.

The coronavirus has also led to an increase in call volume, Cyboron said.

Every Grand Island firefighter is an EMT. Some firefighters are also paramedics.

Five people respond to a typical medical call — the driver, the attending paramedic, a captain, firefighter and another paramedic.

On calls where the person may have COVID, the attending paramedic goes into the residence first. He or she relays information to someone outside, “so that you’re limiting exposure to only one person,” Cyboron said.

“So that’s been a challenge,” he said. “But we’ve figured it out and everybody works together to get it done,”

With COVID-19, the responders have to assume they could encounter the virus on any call in which a person reports a shortness of breath, cough, chest pain or any other symptom typical of the coronavirus.

In those cases, the emergency personnel have to take all of the necessary precautions until it’s clear patients don’t have COVID. “We just assume they do until proven otherwise,” he said.

Cyboron praises the work of dispatchers, who “have been doing really well” in dealing with 911 callers who may have COVID. The dispatchers pose a list of questions, asking if they have been exposed to COVID-19, if they have COVID symptoms and if they’ve tested positive for COVID.

The dispatchers then relay that information to the first responders.

The emergency personnel and dispatchers have done a good job of working together, Cyboron said.

Firefighters and EMTs do worry about COVID, “which is good because it keeps us vigilant,” Cyboron said.

They’ve learned how to clean well and quickly so that they can be ready “and still be safe,” he said.

“We are very thorough. We are very good at cleaning,” he said.

The responders have been fortunate that “a lot of us have maintained our health throughout this whole thing,” Cyboron said.

He attributes that “to everyone learning and being good at what they do.”

Recently, the firefighter/EMTs have noticed a slight decrease in the number of COVID calls.

But back in the spring, there was a brief period where the first responders ran short of N-95 masks.

So they used adapters for their self-contained breathing apparatus, or SCBA for short. Firefighters normally wear SCBAs for indoor firefighting. They added two cartridges “that have filters that protect us from particles,” he said.

But Cyboron said the responders “adapted and overcame that,” as they did just about everything else with COVID.

Cyboron believes that firefighters accepted and met the challenge of COVID.

Their response to the virus was “let’s hit this head on and get it taken care of,” he said. “It’s a lot less stressful if you think about it that way.”

Protecting people’s lives and assuming risk “is what we signed up for,” he said. “So COVID is no exception to the rule.”

He feels comfortable speaking for everyone in the department “when I say that we did a pretty darn good job of responding to the COVID crisis.”

The Grand Island Fire Department is appreciative of the public’s support, Cyboron said.

“The city as a whole and all of our residents have been vigilant,” he said. “I think we’re all in this together, like they say, and we’ve all done well, I think.”

Health care providers work tirelessly behind the scenes

In looking at those who’ve stepped up their game in the battle against COVID-19, a member of the Grand Island Board of Health points to the community’s health care providers, especially the people at the Central District Health Department who were “behind the scenes doing a lot of the work.”

Board of Health member Dr. Rebecca Steinke mentioned Jonna Mangeot, senior community health nurse at Central District Health, a well as CDHD Health Director Teresa Anderson.

Steinke also praised Dr. Libby Crockett, who works at Grand Island Clinic.

“She’s very much an advocate for speaking out publicly,” Steinke said. In addition, Crockett helped Steinke feel comfortable as a member of the Board of Health, and in speaking at City Council meetings.

To gain information about COVID and its victims, Central District Health has pooled its resources, Mangeot said. Joining in the effort were people working in accreditation and health education at Central District Health.

“As a health department, we all gave up pieces of what we were doing to all pull together,” Mangeot said. Instead of working independently, “We’ve really pooled together to do the best for our community.”

Central District Health employees put in many hours studying COVID cases, looking for clusters and trying to get information out to the public.

Community health care workers also follow up with people who’ve tested positive for COVID. They ask those people if they have questions or if their needs are being met, Mangeot said.

The CDHD employees might ask if those infected by the virus are having trouble paying their bills. “Because if they’re off for 10 days or more, and if you don’t have vacation or sick time, how do you pay your bills or feed your kids?” Mangeot said.

They also talk about their COVID symptoms and ask about the people they were in contact with before they were symptomatic. “And we’re going to call all those people as well,” Mangeot said.

If people with COVID have children who go to school, the Central District Health employees will let the school know that the kids are going to be home for awhile. Central District Health also provides needed letters if people are eligible for COVID pay.

It’ll be interesting to see how things go with the vaccine, Mangeot said.

She knows that people are suffering from COVID fatigue. “I mean, they’re just tired of it and we all, of course, want it go away,” Mangeot said.

But it’s still important to follow the social distancing procedures. Everyone has to do their part, Mangeot said.

Some people say, “I had COVID and I didn’t get that sick.”

“Yeah, you may not. But the next person may get really sick,” Mangeot said.

Because of COVID-19, the entire health care community was busy in 2020. “It’s been rough,” Steinke said.

The virus has affected some of Steinke’s patients. Some of her elderly nursing home patients have passed away.

The coronavirus also delayed some patients in coming in for follow-up appointments, which has caused some anxiety.

Steinke is pleased about the “glimmer of hope” that the COVID vaccine brings.

“I’m very, very hopeful about the vaccine. Once we get 70 to 80 percent of people covered with that, the viral capacity to spread is going to drop so much.”

Steinke believes in the work that went into developing the vaccine. “I trust science very much,” she said. “I’ve been following that from the onset.”

The challenge will be to remain patient. “It’s going to take some time,” Steinke said. “We can’t just throw away our masks yet.”

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