Tuesday, March 23rd, 2021

Health official praises staff in pandemic year

By Leslie Gartrell
CELINA - Mercer County Health District staff have had a whirlwind of a year, juggling their COVID-19 responsibilities while helping community members navigate the seemingly ever-changing state health orders.
Health district administrator Jason Menchhofer presented the district's report during the annual Mercer County Health District Advisory Committee meeting on Monday evening.
Menchhofer praised employees and volunteers for their work, which included contact tracing, vaccination planning, providing public information and consulting with businesses, schools and industries on compliance with state health orders.
Council members also elected Angie Stephenson to the health board.
Stephenson of Rockford will replace outgoing board member Janet Gels, who represented northern Mercer County. Menchhofer said Stephenson is a registered nurse at Head Start, adding that Stephenson told him serving on the health board has been a dream of hers since her mother served years ago.
Discussing the district's pandemic response, Menchhofer said officials reported the first case in the county on March 24 and started vaccinations on Dec. 30. He said he was impressed with the scientific community's ability to produce multiple effective vaccines in a short period of time, especially when officials first estimated it would be this spring or summer before vaccinations could start.
Health officials can administer about 400 first doses a week, he said. About 20% of Mercer County residents have received at least one dose from all vaccine providers in the county, including Mercer Health and local pharmacies. According to the annual report, the total number of first and second doses administered in the county was 5,658 as of Friday.
Volunteers have played a big role in the district's ability to hold its weekly drive-thru vaccination clinics at the Mercer County Fairgrounds. Menchhofer said it takes about 35-40 people to staff the clinics, and volunteers make up a sizable portion.
Environmental health director Michelle Kimmel said her staff had to complete their regular job duties while also juggling COVID-19 duties. Staff dedicated 3,287 hours to duties such as contact tracing, offering guidance to businesses, schools and industries and assisting staff with vaccination clinics.
Kimmel said staff also had to interpret state health orders and field questions and phone calls from residents and business owners.
However, a bright spot appeared amid some of the chaos early on, Kimmel said. Staff were able to log and match the entire permit inventory, which includes water well and septic system permits, with current property addresses and filed documents appropriately. Kimmel said accomplishing that task will help greatly with one of their next big projects - the household sewage treatment program.
The state in 2015 mandated every health department to determine how and when all existing septic systems in the county would be covered by an operating permit and future oversight.
Kimmel said the first step was to get an idea of how many systems in the county were already documented with an installation permit. Staff are preparing to contact owners of undocumented system to get them into the operation and maintenance program, she said.
Contacting the owners will be done in phases, Kimmel continued, starting with properties located in distressed watersheds and moving alphabetically. Kimmel said so long as the system isn't a public nuisance or imminent danger, staff will do what they can to bring the system into compliance and offer resources when possible.
Kimmel said the initial permit cost is $60, and permits need to be renewed every 10 years. A permit renewal costs about $40. She emphasized that the goal of the program is to help owners, not penalize them.
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