By Patti Samar
Jennifer Michaluk and Elizabeth King do not remember much of the months of March and April.
Essential staff members and department heads at the St. Clair County Health Department, both worked around the clock, seven days a week, once the Coronavirus 19 pandemic hit the county.
According to Justin Westmiller, the Director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management for St. Clair County, both women were key to the county’s successful response to the pandemic.
“March is a total blur,” said Michaluk, the Director of Health Education and Planning, who holds a master’s degree in health education. “I felt as if I was in a fog. It was very stressful. I don’t remember spending much time with my family.”
King, who is both an RN and BSN, and serves as the Director of Nursing and Community Health, concurred with Michaluk, stating: “I was working seven days a week, and it’s always on your mind. I think we’re always very dedicated, but I’ve never been pushed that far.
“I consider myself very experienced. I’ve been here for 18 years, I’ve been here through a number of outbreaks that I’ve been involved with, but this was so beyond anything I’d ever seen.
“It wasn’t just St. Clair County, or even just cross jurisdictional into Macomb County…it was affecting the whole world.
“It’s so hard to conceive of…and we were just running the race and you don’t really see the Big Picture.”
Michaluk added: “We sat here and thought, ‘Is this real? How did this happen?’”
Monitoring the Situation
King said the county health department first began monitoring COVID 19 in December 2019, as cases began appearing around the world.
Michaluk, who serves as the chief public information officer (PIO) for the health department, put out the first COVID 19 press release in January to warn the public that the virus was spreading.
“And we started to meet about it,” she said.
King noted that international airports began monitoring people who were returning from international travel, and as the news began carrying more stories, local people who had been traveling began reaching out to the health department, as well.
Then, it was confirmed that the virus had hit the shores of the United States with a case in Washington state.
“We started activating things we have practiced in training so many times before,” said King.
So, did their training manuals and books help them out?
“With this, we kind of wrote a new book,” said Michaluk.
All Hands on Deck
Both Michaluk and King noted that the entire staff at the health department stepped forward and many took on new roles as the entire team became focused on addressing the pandemic in some way.
“We have a really strong team here,” said King. “Everyone knowing their role was helpful, and knowing the chain of command was helpful. We know everyone’s best qualities, so you can be confident that person is going to do a job and do it well.
“The staff was incredible. When we asked for volunteers to work on the weekends, they just volunteered. We’ve had many staff members working seven days a week.”
“Everybody deserves a thank you,” said Michaluk.
Keeping the Public Informed
Especially in the early days of March and April, the pandemic presented plenty of challenges as the public’s need for information was great, and the virus was so new that information being fed to the county from state and national sources was constantly changing as more was learned about the virus.
In her role as chief PIO, Michaluk led the county’s outreach to the media and the community.
“I am always wondering, ‘Am I doing a good job? Are people getting the information they need?’
“And I’d just like to say that I always welcome community feedback…please let me know what you need,” she said, noting that news releases and social media posts were among the primary tools used to communicate regularly with the public.
“We just want to be the trusted county resource. We were doing the best that we could with the information we had from day to day, and I welcome all feedback from the community.”
Added King: “When we get that public feedback, it’s important.”
Both King and Michaluk noted that the health department staff still meets daily and still participates in daily conference calls with various partner agencies, even though the pace of the pandemic work has slowed as the governor has relaxed the stay-at-home orders and opened up the economy.
“Things are slowing down,” said Michaluk. “I’m still trying to run my other programs.” Michaluk is responsible for a wide range of public health initiatives and grant programs in the county.
King, who also oversees a large staff and numerous health department programs, said when it began, the pandemic brought much of her other work to a halt.
“Most of my programs stopped or we were offering services on a very limited basis,” she said. “One of the things that keeps me up at night is thinking about those services that are needed that we haven’t been able to offer…and how to prioritize what starts again first.”
Though their work on the pandemic is still ongoing, both King and Michaluk are beginning to once again address other areas of public health.
“We’re looking forward: what does 2021 look like for our budget, our programs, our staffing? The after effects of the pandemic will be felt for many, many years,” said King. “It’s just our nature to look forward and see what’s coming next. We’re looking at treatments and vaccines. Hopefully, COVID will eventually just become something on our vaccine list.”
The Silver Lining
Both Michaluk and King noted there are a number of good health initiatives that are coming out of the pandemic.
“The public is stepping up with cleaning,” noted King. “That is a good, positive change.”
“What’s wrong with better cleaning practices?” echoed Michaluk. “And we all just have a greater appreciation for just going out. Hopefully, with the warmer weather, we will be outside more and hopefully we won’t see a recurrence.”
King said: “I’m cautiously optimistic. I’m confident that if the virus comes back in the numbers we were seeing, that we can handle it.
“I think people are ready to go back to normal. I’ve seen more people riding their bikes and walking the trails near my house. Those things made me smile on the bad days.”
And Michaluk? “On those bad days, I took a minute to appreciate nature and I would see the sun does shine.”