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Sound Health is a recurring series that airs twice each month on WGLT's Sound Ideas program.Support for Sound Health comes from Carle Health, bringing care, coverage, support, healthcare research and education to central Illinois and beyond.

Sound Health: COVID makes long-term planning difficult for public health

Health department sign
Emily Bollinger
McLean County Health Department Administrator Jessica McKnight says it's unlikely COVID-19 will ever go away, but it's hard to say how much of a public health response will be necessary in the future.

The emergence of the omicron variant demonstrates the challenges in planning an effective coronavirus response.

In this edition of Sound Health, McLean County Health Department (MCHD) Administrator Jessica McKnight said public health should expect COVID will never go away, but there are too many unknowns to plan for the long term.

“I don’t think any of us expect that COVID is going to disappear completely, unfortunately,” said McKnight, adding the coronavirus is behaving now very much like the seasonal flu and other respiratory viruses that typically spread when more people move indoors during fall and winter.

Jessica McKnight
McLean County
Jessica McKnight

McKnight said it's still unclear how much COVID vaccinations and boosters will be needed in the coming years. Scientists have not yet determined how effective COVID vaccines are against the omicron variant.

“Whether that be additional staff or the staff that we currently have being able to move them around a little bit, I’m not exactly sure what that looks like yet, but we are definitely planning for that inevitability,” McKnight said.

She said the county will still need a contact tracing staff, but they may not be able to investigate every coronavirus case in the future.

“We may be pivoting, looking less at the number of cases, (paying) more intention about looking at outbreaks, disease severity and those high-risk individuals,” McKnight said.

She said the health department had as many as 60 contract workers at the peak of the pandemic. Most of them were short-term hires paid by the federal government to help reduce the spread of COVID-19.

McKnight said two of the biggest challenges public health will face long term are opposition to COVID and other vaccines and reductions in public funding.

“How do we keep encouraging, educating about the importance of vaccines and what they do, not only to save lives, but also to save direct and indirect health care costs,” she said.

McKnight said the department will need to focus on its role of educating the public about COVID-19 and other health issues — regardless of how long COVID stays in the public conscience.

Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.
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