The Union County Health Department is working to assist local businesses and residents as the state begins to loosen restrictions surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.
During Wednesday’s Board of Health meeting, which was held online via Zoom, Health Commissioner Jason Orcena shared updates as to how the county is moving forward with new orders from the state.
“The last couple of weeks have been a flurry of exhausting interpretations of new guidance and orders that are coming out,” he said.
To keep up with constantly evolving guidance from Gov. Mike DeWine and the Ohio Department of Health, Orcena said UCHD is meeting three times a week with the Union County Chamber of Commerce and local businesses.
He said UCHD is also meeting regularly with local recreational programs and he has had phone conversations with district superintendents.
One “hang-up” he said the agency is facing is the lag time between guidance from the state and issuance of an actual order.
Guidance documents provide overarching direction, such as opening dates for business sectors, while orders answer more specific questions, Orcena explained.
For that reason, he said it can be difficult for UCHD staff to answer questions from local business owners or employees when official orders are not yet available.
Additionally, Orcena said it is often a challenge to interpret the amended Stay at Home order, orders regarding individual sectors and guidance documents simultaneously.
He said each of the three have to “be in alignment,” so UCHD has been working with legal counsel for guidance. The agency has to be flexible, Orcena added, because the state may provide new interpretations during regular Tuesday or Thursday meetings with health departments.
“It is an interesting race to be running,” he said.
As a result he said most of UCHD’s work is still centered around the COVID-19 response, while “normal business of the agency is a second concern most days.”
A current focus, Orcena said, is contact tracing. He said determining who those positive for COVID-19 have been in contact with is “becoming more complex” because “the number of exposures to cases go up dramatically with reopenings (of businesses).”
He said the county currently has a number of individuals who have been placed in quarantine or isolation.
“By and large people are pretty compliant,” Orcena said. “We have had a couple of occasions… where we run into difficulty getting people to comply with those orders.”
He said UCHD relies on voluntary quarantine or self-isolation, but occasionally has to issue orders because “these are legal orders, not suggestions.”
If an individual is placed in quarantine or isolation, Orcena said UCHD assumes responsibility for provision of care. He said there is a “pretty robust process” in place to ensure food delivery, access to medicine and other needs are met.
However, he said more people are becoming reluctant to remain isolated voluntarily.
As a result, the Board of Health approved a contract with the Union County Sheriff’s Office for Special Duty Officers to provide quarantine or isolation enforcement for $41 an hour plus a $10 daily vehicle fee.
Orcena said it is “not an inexpensive proposition,” as it would cost $13,776 for two weeks of quarantine.
“This is a last resort kind of issue. This is not something we really want to have to do,” he emphasized.
Even so, if residents violate the law and put the community at risk, he said the health department has to be prepared to enforce orders.
Orcena described the potential use of quarantine enforcement officers as a “very salient issue” and said he has had conversations with the county prosecutor about several relevant cases.
In other business:
– The potential need for furloughs caused by the pandemic response was discussed during the April board meeting, but Fiscal Officer Amy Hamilton shared positive news this month.
“I am not recommending any furloughs as we had discussed last month,” she said.
Hamilton explained the agency has received increased funding from ODH, specifically through the COVID-19 grant.
Coronavirus response funding was bumped from just over $70,000 to approximately $103,000, she said. UCHD will receive $62,500 with the rest going to the Kenton-Hardin Health Department, which acts as a subcontractor for the local agency.
Hamilton said this is nearly a $20,000 increase for UCHD from the initial notice of award. About $55,000 of the funding is earmarked for personnel costs, she added.
UCHD will also receive over $52,000 from ODH through the COVID-19 Contact Tracing Grant. Hamilton said it will be used to hire intermittent employees and train nurses who have been reassigned to contact tracing, a tool used in pandemic response.
Additionally, she said the health department received notification that employees who are typically funded through grants can charge hours spent responding to COVID-19 to their grants. This is a financial relief for UCHD, she explained, because the department was previously missing out on grant dollars from employees whose duties unexpectedly changed.
Hamilton said reassignment of grants is permitted from April 23 to May 22. She said she is hopeful it will be extended, but must be renewed by the state every 30 days.
She said she is also pursuing funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which can be used for employees who haven’t received other grant funding and who have been completely reassigned to pandemic related tasks.
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