Fighting a pandemic

Featured Sliders / Health & Fitness / HER Health / HER Profile / Stories / May 12, 2020

Health Department director takes lead role in local coronavirus efforts

Story by Madeleine Leroux
Photos by Julie Smith and Liv Paggiarino

It’s been a long spring for Kristi Campbell.

As director of the Cole County Health Department, Campbell has taken a lead role during the coronavirus pandemic. And that has meant a lot of long and busy days.

It is a lot of stress,” Campbell said.

But, she quickly noted, it’s a stressful situation for almost everybody.

Kristi Campbell poses for a photograph at the Cole County Health Department, where she serves as director. Photo by Julie Smith

Campbell has been at the Cole County Health Department for six years but has never faced anything like this before. On March 28, the health department issued a stay-at-home order for residents.

That order kicked off a whirlwind for Campbell and her staff, though, to be honest, they had been working hard for weeks in advance. Campbell likens public health agencies to a duck on the water — it looks peaceful and serene, but under the water, it is paddling furiously to stay afloat.

Public health is all this stuff that goes on behind the scenes that people don’t even know we do,” Campbell said, pointing to inspections, programs and services the agency provides. “Public health touches every single person’s life every single day, even if they don’t realize.

The big thing with the pandemic is now everybody else is involved. It’s getting a lot of media attention. Everyone wants to know what we’re doing.”

It’s natural for the health department to take the lead in a pandemic. The department staff is used to following up and checking on people who have what Campbell called “reportable communicable diseases,” which is a list of more than 100 diseases that require follow ups by health officials. To slow the spread of the coronavirus, those who test positive must be quarantined, and several checks must be done. It’s Campbell and her staff who inform people of being quarantined and lay out the rules of the situation.

After that whole snafu in St. Louis, we wanted our people to know exactly what was expected of them,” Campbell said, referring to an early positive case in Missouri where a family was under quarantine and reports quickly broke of family members going out in public spaces.

The health department staff then does daily checks on that person to see how their symptoms are progressing and when they can be let out of quarantine.

Apart from that, staff has been fielding questions and going over forms to determine what businesses were essential. Out of 21 staff members, Campbell said 16 have been working on something related to the coronavirus.

All of our staff have really pitched in,” Campbell said.

That includes taking care of each other. Campbell said she has often struggled to ask for help, but she’s learning it’s OK to ask and to pass on some duties to other staff members. She talked about when the county nwas establishing a form for businesses to fill out to decide whether their operations were essential.

I was trying to make all the decisions about businesses and all that, and then we realized that we could borrow from another county and do that essential

Cole County Health Department Director Kristi Campbell reads a prepared statement to members of the press on March 17 at the Cole County Sheriff’s Office. Photo by Liv Paggiarino

business form,” she said. “It was one less thing that I had to do. Because at that point I was just inundated with calls and questions. It was like I couldn’t do one more thing.”

But with so many staff members diverted to coronavirus efforts, eventually they will have to play catch-up on work that’s not being done. Plus, there’s going to be a number of effects from the pandemic for the health department to deal with later, she said.

Our teen pregnancy rates are going to be up, our STD rates are going to be up, so then we’re going to be catching up on all of that stuff and then we’ll be behind the curve again,” Campbell said.

One of the most difficult aspects of this pandemic is the isolation that can creep in. With social distancing, you can’t physically get near or hang out with loved ones like you would have otherwise. But you can still be social.

That’s why Campbell is trying to switch from “social distancing” to “physical distancing,” which more accurately shows that we simply need a physical space between people.

“We’ve been saying physical distancing instead of social distancing because of that whole mental health aspect,” Campbell said. “We want people to be social. We still want them to have those relationships because it is so good for you, but it’s that physical distancing that breaks the transmission barrier.”

By mid-April, it appears the physical distancing has been helping to slow the spread in Cole County. And that means, as long as efforts continue, hopefully local health care systems will not be overwhelmed by people seeking treatment, which is what leads to providers having to choose which patient gets a life-saving measure like a ventilator and which one does not.

I never want to be in that position to overwhelm our health care system, so I think that is a big why that people kind of miss,” Campbell said of the reasoning behind the stay-at-home order. “It’s not just about public health. We have to make decisions for the entire community. And people don’t understand that. It’s a hard concept.”

Campbell is obviously working each day, often going into the office, and her work days have been long recently. Her husband is working from home, and their 11-year-old daughter, who is in fifth grade, is trying to tackle the new remote learning that has become the norm for the rest of the school year. Campbell said her daughter has been doing really well under the circumstances, but she feels bad that she can’t spend more time with her right now.

Cole County Health Department Director Kristi Campbell addresses Cole County Commission members during a meeting with latest COVID-19 information. Photo by Julie Smith

One of her biggest victories of the pandemic, Campbell said, was simply getting her 81-year-old father to stop working. She said he doesn’t need the job, but enjoys working a few days a week delivering auto parts at the Lake of the Ozarks. But it’s not a risk she’s comfortable with him taking now. (He’s not completely sold on stopping — Campbell said she received a text from her father just a few days before our interview asking if she thought it would be OK for him to go back to work. The answer was short: No.)

Overall, Campbell is trying to look at the positive. While the coronavirus pandemic is likely going to alter our daily lives forever, she said that doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. The experience could teach us what our priorities actually are and what they should be.

Hopefully, we’ve learned some things about disease transmission. We’ve learned some things about mental health,” Campbell said. “At home, I’ve been trying to think about the positives as much as possible. You know, what have we learned? We were very busy. We had activities like every night. And now we’re not. We’re going for walks as a family; we’re trying to concentrate on what matters.

This has made us slow down and really focus on the things that are more important. And when things get back to semi-normal, you can only pick up those things that were really important to you.”

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May 12, 2020