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Health Departments Adapt Staffing To Meet Demands Of The Pandemic In West Kentucky


As the coronavirus pandemic escalates in Kentucky and throughout the nation, public health departments remain on the frontline of prevention and education at the community level. With an unprecedented demand for services, some western Kentucky health departments are adjusting staffing levels to accommodate contact tracing and other virus-related services. 

Graves County is one of the western Kentucky counties hardest hit by the pandemic. Early outbreaks in long-term care facilities coupled with recent clusters due to vacation travel have caused 397 cases in the county as of July 22, outpacing every county in the Jackson Purchase region. Graves County’s virus count is higher than counties in the region with considerably higher populations, including McCracken, Hopkins and Christian. Noel Coplen is the director of the Graves County Health Department. He said the high infection levels in the county have greatly increased the need for disease investigations related to contact tracing. 

“Disease investigation has always been part of something that the health department does. It has exploded 100 times,” Coplen said.

Coplen said a usual year would bring disease investigations for tuberculosis and flu outbreaks in nursing homes. He said the existing infrastructure was helpful when the pandemic began, but COVID-19 quickly outpaced anything the department had seen before. 

“The disease investigation really started ramping up since the end of March. At times, it has just really been overwhelming,” Coplen said. 

Coplen said staffers from the Kentucky Department of Public Health are in place to assist local health departments struggling to keep up with surging virus cases. 

“There’s a regional team in place to help with the contact investigations,” Coplen explained. “That’s been very helpful.”

Coplen said he expects to hire new in-house investigators over the coming months to assist in the effort. 

The pandemic has forced health departments to shift staffing levels toward COVID-19 prevention and mitigation efforts. Coplen said some staff members in other areas of the department have been temporarily reassigned or retrained.

“Everybody has had to learn how to do things differently. Not that it wasn’t the case anyway, but we had to re-shift things,” he said.

Another western Kentucky county ravaged by the pandemic is Christian County. With 447 cases reported by the county as of July 22, the area was an early hotspot in the pandemic and continues to supply many of the cases in the region. Amanda Sweeney is the Christian County Health Department’s public information officer. She said her department reduced most services to free up resources for COVID-19.

“It was probably about April when we reduced our services quite a bit,” Sweeney said. “We needed to pull in our staff to focus on COVID-19 efforts. 

Sweeney said before the department could hire contact tracers, other staff members were transferred to handle the disease investigations. She also said she pulled employees to assist in her office with social media and communications.

Sweeney said with dedicated contact tracers and an overall “new normal,” some traditional programming originally put on hold is now resuming in an online format. 

“A lot of what we do is out in the community and we’re doing a lot of social distancing so we couldn’t really get out in the community,” Sweeney said. “Since we’re starting to sort of amp back up, we’re looking at a lot of our programs and what we can offer virtually.”

Learn more about Kentucky’s local health departments here. Find more information concerning Kentucky’s response to the coronavirus pandemic here.

This report has been updated to include Christian County virus cases reported by the local health department.

Dalton York is a Morning Edition host and reporter for WKYU in Bowling Green. He is a graduate of Murray State University, where he majored in History with a minor in Nonprofit Leadership Studies. While attending Murray State, he worked as a student reporter at WKMS. A native of Marshall County, he is a proud product of his tight-knit community.
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