UNION COUNTY — Public health officials in Union County were preparing for a pandemic before the new coronavirus struck Oregon. But the actual outbreak has pushed the Center for Human Development Inc. into the role as the central player in the local response.
Center spokesman George Thompson said before the pandemic there wasn’t as much awareness of what the center did daily. That was a good thing, he said, because if the center is doing its job, the public would not be hearing from it as much. But Public Health Administrator Carrie Brogoitti said because the coronavirus is so visible, so is CHD Public Health.
“For the most part we are doing our job, but the magnitude of what we are experiencing is different,” Brogoitti said.
The center in May 2019 completed a bubonic plague drill, a statewide exercise to test the response from local agencies.
The practice run assessed the county’s emergency response team’s communication and its speed at setting up countermeasures to a fake plague. The exercise also tested response time in sending assistance. Thompson said the county was seamless in its work in the drill and performed well.
While drills and guidebooks on how to respond to a pandemic are valuable tools for the center, they are not a one size fits all, according to Thompson and Brogoitti, especially with a novel virus.
“We have to adapt and modify our tools to something we don’t know,” Brogoitti said.
One of the tools that has become vital for CHD, according to Thompson, is communication. He said a large portion of the challenge with the COVID-19 response is in the heavy amount of information reaching the pubic. And with the issue becoming more politicized, the information becomes polarized, he said.
“There is so much information in the world right now, it further complicates getting accurate and good information to those who need it,” he said.
Locally, Thompson said, he has seen the information around wearing a mask and the number of cases as some of the biggest issues in getting the public to listen to accurate data from the center.
However, the Center for Human Development is doing what it can to share accurate information, utilizing partnerships in the community and with the state and federal government. Brogoitti said the frequent meetings with the incident management team, which includes the county emergency manager, representatives from Grande Ronde Hospital and emergency response services, have strengthened the organizations’ relationships with one another.
“There are different partners in the community who are responding to this public health emergency,” Brogoitti said. “We get to see their strengths and learn about how they operate. This experience really helps us build that foundation. For public health, we are deepening and solidifying these relationships. We are all in this together. We have this really strong mission to protect the community. We are all really committed to the same objective.”
Thompson said the pandemic also has brought more collaboration internally at the center as people who were not working a pandemic response type of job are now stepping up to help where it is needed.
According to Brogoitti, this global pandemic remains in the beginning stages, so changes in public health are not entirely measurable. But, the differences that can be seen are in the strength of relationships the community is building. Thompson hopes this is something that can continue into the future.
“I want to carry forward,” Thompson said. “I think it is really important to engage our community at a local level and to understand our local dynamics. I think it is important to work at a local level and set politics aside and work together. My hope in the future is the community as a whole wants to learn more about the organizations in it — who supports us and how we can support them. It is really easy to disconnect and isolate and hopefully it reconnects people in our community, helping our community be vibrant and thrive in the future.”