‘Light at the end of tunnel’ visible for Washtenaw County, health leaders say after one year of COVID

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WASHTENAW COUNTY, MI — Jimena Loveluck and much of her staff at the Washtenaw County Health Department have gone more than a year without a vacation.

As Washtenaw County’s top health official, Loveluck’s last 12 months have been taken over by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has taken the lives of 238 people and accounted for 19,548 confirmed and probable infections across the county.

Initially, people speculated about how long the spread of the virus might last. Two to three weeks quickly turned into two to three months. Because of her experience in public health, particularly working to combat the spread of the HIV/AIDS, Loveluck said she had an inkling, though, that it would be here for the long term.

“We’re still understanding so much that we didn’t know about the virus and its impact, so, I didn’t completely predict all of this, but I did have a sense that this could be a long haul for our health department and for us as a community,” Loveluck said.

The goal for Washtenaw County now is to create an environment where getting a COVID vaccination is as easy as getting the flu shot, Loveluck said. With vaccines more available than ever before, Loveluck said she’s proud of the health department’s work, but knows more challenges are likely inevitable.

Washtenaw County residents can now self schedule for COVID vaccine appointments

“For many of us this has been the biggest professional and personal challenge that we’ve faced,” Loveluck said.

The first months of the coronavirus spread

Loveluck became the county’s health officer in 2019. Prior to that, she was the health department’s deputy officer, writing grants to bring in new funding and staff. She also served as president/CEO of the HIV/AIDS Resource Center in Ypsilanti for 15 years.

Weeks before the first confirmed COVID-19 case was reported in Michigan on March 10, 2020, the health department was monitoring travelers, Loveluck said.

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Before COVID testing was available, there were a series of tests done to rule out flu and other possible viruses. And all tests were sent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, which was not an efficient process, Loveluck said.

“I remember the wait for that first positive test result. Every test we’d be waiting for notice from the CDC about the results and I remember everyday going through the suspected cases, what their story was, what their possible exposure was,” Loveluck said.

It wasn’t until later in March that health systems were performing COVID tests locally, and even then testing was not available in the capacity it is now.

“Testing was super challenging early on, you had to be symptomatic, it wasn’t just going to CVS like you can now,” she said.

Loveluck recalls how quickly the pandemic accelerated, a sign it would take much longer than a few months to bring an end to the spread of the virus, she said.

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On March 12, 2020, Washtenaw County reported its first confirmed case, and by March 22 there were 34 more cases and one death, an elderly man with underlying health conditions, the health department reported.

“There have been times where I’ve had to use my authority as a public health officer to put in additional restrictions because of the situation that we were facing, whether it was cases spiking like the surge in cases on the University of Michigan’s campus, as well as businesses, asking employers to screen employees before those were statewide expectations.,” Loveluck said.

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The health department and University of Michigan have partnered on two orders recommending all students living on or near the Ann Arbor campus stay in place. One came during the fall 2020 semester when more than 1,000 cases were identified in the UM community, and the other in January when the health department responded to fears of the rapid spreading B.1.1.7. variant.

Inequalities exacerbated by effects of pandemic

The health department has focused on addressing health equity throughout Washtenaw County, which has been highlighted by the pandemic.

“We’ve seen how communities of color have been particularly impacted by COVID, how certain geographic areas of our county have been impacted and it shows how much more work there is to do,” Loveluck said.

In Washtenaw County, 9.4% of vaccinations have been received by Black people, who account for 12.3% of county residents, 13% of coronavirus cases and 22% of deaths. White people make up 74.1% of the county’s population and have received 76% of first doses of the vaccine, according to the data.

Inequities, coupled with mixed messaging early on made adhering to mitigation strategies like mask wearing and social distancing more difficult, Loveluck said.

“From a public health standpoint, that was confusing before we had a clear indication that mask wearing was beneficial not only to protect individuals but others around you.”

Requests for public assistance saw a 250% increase in Washtenaw County compared to years past, according to a county report. Early on, some people lacked the resources to change their normal behaviors, Loveluck said, adding many didn’t have the ability to obtain a face covering once it became the norm.

“It meant distributing masks when we had masks, it meant getting donations of cloth masks early on, as well as donations for other supplies like hand sanitizers and soap and cleaning supplies that many community members really needed,” Loveluck said.

Vaccines provide hope the end is near

Cindra James, the health department’s emergency preparedness administrator, is excited to be at the vaccination stage of the pandemic, she said. The light at the end of the tunnel is visible, James said, but the process is not gong as quickly as some had hoped.

The Washtenaw County Health Department received its initial 1,950-dose shipment of COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 17, and began vaccinated people soon after. The health department has been steadily increasing the number of vaccinations per week since, but the supply still isn’t enough to vaccinate everyone eligible.

Washtenaw County Health Department receives first shipment of COVID-19 vaccine

Washtenaw County Health Department receives initial COVID-19 vaccine shipment

Surrounding the box containing 1,950 COVID-19 vaccine doses is health officer Jimena Loveluck, biologics clerk Rachel Avedisian, Rebecca Longhany, outreach and education nurse coordinator, spokesperson Susan Ringler Cerniglia, Gregory Dill, county administrator Charlyn VanDeventer, public health educator.

“Since everything started we’ve all wanted to get to this point where we’re able to give out vaccines, the hard thing is knowing that we don’t have enough vaccine to do more,” James said.

James has worked as site coordinator at the health department’s Ypsilanti vaccine clinic at Eastern Michigan University’s Convocation Center. James communicates with Eastern Michigan University officials at the venue, as well as local law enforcement to ensure the clinic operates effectively, she said.

“We want this to be a good experience for them and we want to be the trusted partner in the community and show that we are and want to continue that legacy,” James said.

The health department also has another clinic at Chelsea’s Pierce Lake Elementary School.

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As of March 17, 35,304 first and second doses have been administered by the health department and 90,152 Washtenaw residents have received at least one dose from health providers across the county.

Improvements have been made to speed up the vaccination process throughout the county, as there is no longer a request process or waitlist for appointments. Toward the end of February, 20,000 people had signed up and were waiting for appointments. Still, vaccine supply challenges remain, Loveluck said.

“We’re happy that everyone older than 16 will be eligible in April, but are hoping to see a regular increase in our vaccine supply,” Loveluck said.

As available appointments are based on vaccine supply, it still may take weeks for people to schedule an appointment. A new online self-scheduling process will allow people to make appointments for upcoming clinics as they become available.

New appointments will be added at least weekly or as existing appointments are cancelled, officials said. To register for an appointment, click here.

READ MORE FROM THE ANN ARBOR NEWS:

Michigan’s positive test rate and daily coronavirus cases continue to climb

Michigan unsure when it will see boost in COVID-19 vaccine allocation

9,000 newly eligible Washtenaw County residents waiting for COVID vaccination appointments

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