From the County Manager Column from March 30, 2021

Public Health’s essential role in our community underscored during COVID

Following Governor Walz’s order, today marks the beginning of expanded eligibility for the COVID-19 vaccine for everyone in Minnesota 16 and older. This is great news for our state and county, but as the professionals in our Public Health department remind us – while eligibility has expanded, vaccine supply has not (yet). It will be at least a few weeks before we expect to see our supply, and the supply allocated to other local medical providers and pharmacists, expand significantly.

Those in Ramsey County who are vaccinated directly by our Public Health department – 26,000+ and counting* - will continue to be priority and high-risk groups. Because our supply so far has been only the two-dose Moderna vaccine, we need to provide both doses (they are 28 days apart). As our supply increases, we’ll shift with the new expanded eligibility requirements and provide online registration to people statewide.

As you can see, there are many factors that must be considered by our Public Health professionals as information, guidance and the situation on the ground changes not only day-to-day, but hour-to-hour. The fragmented way that health care is (and often isn’t) delivered in this country has added to the complexity. Since the beginning of the pandemic, this balancing act has been a challenge that our Public Health department has met time and time again.

I keep hearing from community members and employees about how our vaccination sites are well-run, quick and easy. Public Health has steadily been building capacity for the past three months by training our own nurses alongside community vaccinators, building a network of professionals who can schedule, screen and answer questions for residents while also managing supplies, setting up and staffing four major clinics across the county. Our Medical Reserve Corps has been a key element of this effort, with Public Health drawing from both long-time volunteers and recruiting hundreds of new ones.

Before the vaccine rolled out, similar efforts were needed to provide COVID-19 testing, as we first helped the state establish local sites, and then stood up our own that were fast and convenient for our residents. Decades of strong partnerships in community helped us connect with and offer testing for populations who have traditionally had significant health disparities such as those in our Black, Brown, Indigenous, Latinx, Hmong and Karen communities. RECERT’s trusted messenger program amplified those health education efforts and helped reduce the stigma around testing.

Contact investigation and essential service provision were also major efforts in the earlier days of COVID-19 that predated widespread testing capacity – with Public Health staff conducting interviews with symptomatic residents to prevent further spread, and providing essentials such as groceries, medicine and supplies. (Ensuring homebound individuals had their essential needs met was further enhanced after we received federal funding for our Home Meal Delivery and Food and Basic Needs programs).

Public Health’s work to protect the health of individuals in county detention and correctional facilities in the midst of COVID is another area I want to highlight. Correctional Health has done an amazing job of safeguarding the health of a transient population living in close quarters through testing and quarantine. In different settings and much different circumstances, Public Health has worked with county and community partners to ensure those experiencing homeless are tested and, if positive, receive adequate care and support through their isolation period.

Prevention through engagement and education have always been key elements of Public Health’s mission. Months before the first Minnesota case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Ramsey County on March 6, 2020, Public Health was monitoring COVID-19, coordinating with our partners and educating both the public and our employees about it. In January 2020, Medical Director Dr. Lynne Ogawa and others had already started the now-familiar refrain of prevention: stay home if you’re sick, frequently and properly wash your hands, and cover your cough.

Public Health Director Kathy Hedin (now Deputy County Manager of Health and Wellness) became a regular fixture at Tuesday board meetings, providing detailed and very valuable reports to our commissioners and local cable television viewing audience. Messages about maintaining social distancing and the importance of wearing masks followed, as we got further into the pandemic. As our health educators and communications professionals worked to shape messages and visuals, community engagement staff within Public Health continued to work alongside RECERT to carry these messages and identify questions and concerns directly with cultural organizations and residents in effective ways.

There’s much more to say, of course. Our Public Health professionals provided consult and direction so that we could re-activate our own workspaces safely, as we’ve continuously modified operations week-to-week across the county. And that’s on top of how areas of Public Health – Clinic 555, Environmental Health, Vital Records and others had to work to safely delivering services directly to our residents and communities since last March.

As we continue to feature different areas of the county and the ways in which they have adapted and served our community and employees during COVID-19, I’m happy to focus this week on Public Health. Next Monday, April 5, kicks off National Public Health Week, but I wanted to get an early start to recognize the great work and leadership of our Public Health department over the past year+. I am so grateful and humbled by how they’ve stepped up, learned, adapted and pressed on through every challenge. They've helped us to understand this virus and given us the tools to slow the spread. They’ve supported recovery for those who have suffered from COVID-19, and have made a concentrated effort to focus on those who are most at risk in our community and our organization. We know that the story created by Saint Paul – Ramsey County Public Health at this time will be one that will live on in our history, that we and future generations can continue to be inspired by and learn from.

On behalf of our organization, we extend our deepest gratitude to our Public Health professionals for their astounding efforts throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Thank you – and check out the events coming up during National Public Health Week!  

*It’s important to remember that our Public Health department only receives a modest supply of the vaccine given to all providers that serve Ramsey County – such as clinics, health care providers and pharmacies. To date, nearly 155,000 people in Ramsey County have received at least one dose of the vaccine – we’ve provided about 17% of those doses through Public Health.