WILMINGTON — As the Covid-19 pandemic has dragged on, now close to reaching the two-year mark, New Hanover County no longer intends to rely on its Health and Human Services (HHS) staff to oversee initiatives related to the virus. Instead it is investing $3.7 million to form a Pandemic Operations Team –– referred to as PanOps.
Currently, 17 positions are being filled for the team, with a deadline of February 2022. The team will be divided into two divisions: administrative and clinical.
The PanOps’ main goal will be to analyze the epidemiological spread and containment of diseases and manage public health crises — especially the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic — across New Hanover County.
Brainstorming for the team began in August 2021, with the goal to refocus Covid-19 response and recovery efforts in the county. For nearly two years now, HHS staff often have double dipped between their regular job duties and pandemic needs. By late September, a plan was developed and approved by county leadership to pass some of the latter demands off onto a separate team. Donna Fayko, HHS director, said the PanOps would help “build resilience and provide continuity of operations.”
“The core team of HHS staff who were pulled from their daily duties were showing some signs of fatigue,” she explained. “The entire coordination of our vaccination efforts, to include planning, research, communication, staffing, etc. has been the responsibility of HHS leadership. While I would not say that any responsibilities have ‘suffered,’ I would acknowledge that the team has been stretched at times.”
PanOps positions, approved by the board of commissioners, include an operations manager, health planner, administrative assistants for data entry and records management, communications coordinator, community call center — staffed by temporary employees — an epidemiologist, medical technicians, and public health nurses.
“Numbers would increase depending upon [the] scope of threat and scope of operation needed to mitigate those risks,” Fayko wrote in an email.
So far the county has received more than 300 applicants for all positions and hired three people for the team. Jonathan Campbell will serve as manager and oversee the operations. Campbell — who will earn a salary of just over $100,000 — starts Dec. 28.
“He is already familiar with our staff and operations,” Fayko wrote in an email.
Campbell — who has a master’s degree in physician assistant studies and 12 years of experience in the civilian and military settings — has served as National Guard lead officer for the HHS’ Covid-19 vaccine rollout since January 2021. He is transferring from his role as emergency medicine physician assistant at Vidant Duplin Hospital in Kenansville, N.C., where he leads the hospital’s pandemic response team.
Two public health nurse positions have also been filled. On the clinical side, an epidemiologist would serve as the clinical lead and follow the science of mapping and understanding disease and disorders. Staff is conducting interviews for the position this week.
“The effectiveness of the PanOps team will be evaluated on an ongoing basis and the county will decide the need for the team in 2024 and at what scale the team will need to continue to be funded,” Fayko said.
Of the $45 million New Hanover County received from ARPA, $3.7 million has been allocated toward PanOps. It will operate in the newly designated HHS Annex, at 1507 Greenfield St., right around the corner from the current health and human services building. The annex is undergoing renovations, with an overall building budget of $191,000. This includes demolition, construction of new elements — including ramps for Americans with Disabilities Act compliance — landscaping, painting, IT and security, furniture and signage.
The building has a three-year lease at $99,996 per year with an annual 5% escalator.
“New Hanover County needed an area dedicated to the pandemic operations team to function and operate from that includes office space, conference rooms, storage areas, as well as an area to be able to provide vaccinations as a clinic site,” Jessica Loeper, chief communications officer, wrote in an internal email.
Currently, the county operates vaccine sites at the HHS clinic and within leased space at the Independence Mall, which requires staffers to dedicate additional time outside their daily job responsibilities. New Hanover County school nurses have reportedly taken the brunt of extra responsibilities, operating vaccine clinics while school was remote. Once school returned to a brick-and-mortar setting, those nurses were less available and their time with the HHS clinic is now considered overtime. Also, with contact-tracing playing a huge role in the Covid-19 response, many HHS staff were pulled from their regular duties to assist.
Now with omicron, the latest Covid-19 variant of concern threatening another wave, the workload could be distributed better, without the county compromising its dedication to handling public health needs as the third year of dealing with Covid-19 nears.
“I believe this innovative approach of a dedicated pandemic unit of HHS is among the first in the nation for local governments and is crucial given the ongoing needs in our community and the continued globalization and transient nature of our population, where viruses and diseases can spread more rapidly,” New Hanover County Manager Chris Coudriet said in a news release.
As of Dec. 3, the New Hanover County Covid-19 dashboard reported 337 new cases in the past 14 days – 29,466 total – with 4.4% test positivity rate. Approximately 149,000 people (64%) in New Hanover County have received at least one dose of the Covid-19 vaccine and 140,172 (60%) are fully vaccinated. New Hanover County is on par with the state average, at 57% of the state population fully vaccinated.
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