County Health Departments Face More Hostility As COVID-19 Becomes Increasingly Political | WGLT

County Health Departments Face More Hostility As COVID-19 Becomes Increasingly Political

May 19, 2020
Originally published on May 19, 2020 11:20 am

It's getting harder for health departments to convince people who were in contact with a positive COVID-19 patient to stay at home and self-quarantine.

That's according to Stephanie Wurmrest, one of two nurses working in alternating shifts seven days a week at the Woodford County Health Department in Eureka to conduct contact tracing and other coronavirus-related work.

"I think it's just going to be harder as it goes on to get people to agree to quarantining or isolating. Isolation's not been so bad, because those people know they're positive. People that have been asked to quarantine are getting a little bit more hostile with us because they don't necessarily know who they've been in contact with when we call them," she said.

In some cases, people asked to self-quarantine don't know the positive patient they were in contact with. In other cases, Wurmrest said that patient has already called other people to let them know they were exposed before the health department contacts them. The county currently has 17 confirmed COVID-19 cases.

There was one recent case of a COVID-19 positive patient in Woodford County who initially said they wouldn't self-isolate. That person eventually did agree to self-isolate without court intervention.

The Woodford County State's Attorney's Office and Woodford County Sheriff's Office are not enforcing Gov. Pritzker's stay-at-home executive order, citing constitutional issues. But the state's attorney said there is precedent in the law to mandate people diagnosed with a confirmed communicable disease to stay in isolation.

"If someone has COVID-19, I will gladly file an isolation petition to force someone to do this," said Woodford County State's Attorney Greg Minger. "And if they don't, they're held in contempt. They could also be charged with a misdemeanor. That's what they do. And that's only for people who are confirmed cases."

But Minger also said there's a limited ability for government to monitor people for compliance.

Wurmrest said it was easier to gain cooperation at the beginning of the pandemic. But after two months of staying at home, she said people have become restless and less patient. And with continually-changing guidance from both the Illinois Department of Public Health and Centers for Disease Control, it can take time to track down the right information for workers, depending on their essential or nonessential job status.

"We know that their livelihoods are at stake. And we get that. But we're trying to do a balancing act. Understanding that for them, and trying to do our job in public health," she said.

Woodford County Health Department administrator Hillary Aggertt said the traditional role of public health is helping people, but that's becoming more difficult as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

"The longer this goes on, the more political this becomes, rather than just the health and safety portions of this, which puts a lot of strain on our department overall," Aggertt said. "As it's always call your local health department, then try to find the guidance to move that forward. And that is very difficult. We're trying to work through that the best we can."

The health department has just 10 employees to manage the public health of a county of more than 38,000 people. Some services like child immunizations are currently suspended, but other obligations like environmental health must still be handled, as well.

"It is hard to disconnect as if you have the day off and walk away. It is everywhere. Everything COVID is everywhere. Hard to walk away, I will say," Wurmrest said.

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