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ISU Nursing Professor Explains Community Response In COVID Times

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Emily Bollinger/WGLT
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A COVID-19 vaccine is administered at Illinois State University during a recent clinic.

An Illinois State University professor who also is president of the McLean County Board of Health said if the community could do it over, she'd change the COVID-19 messaging to lessen the tension between maskers and anti-maskers.

Carla Pohl said she would have emphasized the benefit of safety precautions to society rather than individuals.

“In a perfect world, I think I would have started out with being as transparent as possible. ‘These are the guidelines, and it's based on our knowledge of the other three coronaviruses (SARS1, H1N1 and the Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome) .’ Instead of trying to scare people into wearing a mask, you need to acknowledge what people are feeling,” said Pohl.

“The acknowledgement of feelings first, and then try to do the, ‘Wear a mask for the better good.’ That's the thing that we've lost. We don't have that sense of the better good that we used to have.”

Pohl spoke Wednesday during the virtual “Community Response in COVID-19 Times” webinar, part of ISU’s International Seminar Series.

Pohl said the biggest hurdle in trying to mitigate the viral spread was being a non-mask-wearing society.

“Asian countries, generally speaking, people wear masks, not just during pandemics,” said Pohl. “They wear them all the time. Initially, we didn't advise wearing masks because of supply issues, and then when the research caught up, we found out that masks really cut down the spread.”

Pohl said education drives a lot of responses: 40% of people in McLean County have a college degree or higher.

“That helps in terms of how people react to things,” she said.

Collaboration with ISU nursing college

Pohl said collaboration has put McLean County’s response ahead of some communities in contact tracing. But the county has lagged the state average for vaccination rates.

“The health department drills mass emergency dispensing every three years and when they draw up the drills they include Heartland, Illinois Wesleyan and ISU because the nursing students provide staffing,” said Pohl, who also is a certified nurse midwife.

The McLean County Health Department (MCHD) started with 16 contact tracers, then used state money to boost that to 50 in just four months.

Pohl said the community has had better cooperation among partners in rolling out the vaccine than some other regions of the state. One particularly valuable partnership has been between MCHD and ISU’s Mennonite College of Nursing. The nursing college has administered more than 1,200 vaccines.

McLean County (27.6% fully vaccinated) has only recently come up to the statewide average (28%) for vaccination rates and still trails Cook County (29%).

Pohl said Cook County really struggled to get its vaccines going. They have several FEMA sites because of the population. 

“I said, ‘Well, there's also nursing schools up there. Why isn't the health department using the colleges of nursing like the health department uses us to help give vaccines?’ But there wasn't that collaboration before. We've had that collaboration here in McLean County with the health department.”

This weekend, Pohl and her students are headed to LeRoy to set up a small vaccination clinic there. 

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