The early struggles of the pandemic — swirling confusion, scarce testing supplies and a nationwide shortage of personal protective equipment — provided a crash course for health officials in the Dan River region in preparing for such an emergency.
And it’s not about whether another pandemic-like disruption will emerge. The real question is when will it happen again.
According to McKenna Luzynski, an epidemiologist at the Southside Health District, the Virginia Department of Health is always ready to help in a variety of situations, from the flu to a hurricane.
“The health department will be looking ahead,” Chris H. Garrett, local health emergency coordinator for the Pittsylvania-Danville Health District, told the Register & Bee.
Lessons learned over the past two years will be incorporated into emergency operations plans for the district.
“Planning is knowing when it will happen again, not if,” he said.
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“As for the community, they’ve been through a lot,” Garrett explained. “They’ve been tested mentally and emotionally, in time they’ll bounce back.”
He hopes the education and experiences of COVID-19 will help residents be prepared for whatever the future holds.
At Sovah Health-Danville, the early stages were particularly difficult ensuring they had enough PPE – an acronym that quickly became part of common vocabulary – and other tools to care for the community, said Dr. Sheranda Gunn-Nolan, Chief Medical Market Officer.
“Our top priority has always been to protect the health and safety of our patients and staff, so we have protocols in place to ensure we can provide high quality care during all stages of the pandemic,” she told the Register & Bee.
Gunn-Nolan said Sovah Health was at the forefront of the evolving pandemic.
“Our response and actions have shaped the number of other hospitals and communities that have prepared for and responded to the virus,” she wrote in a statement to the Register & Bee. “Early on, we understood the importance of rapid diagnosis to prevent further spread of the virus, so we have worked closely with our partners to increase access to testing and treatment options to improve results for our patients.
Although COVID-19 is a new disease, infectious disease response is not new to Sovah Health.
“We tested the processes and plans in place to respond to situations involving infectious diseases throughout the year,” Gunn-Nolan said.
At the local health department, there is a full-time local emergency coordinator as well as workers for nursing, environmental health, epidemiology and population health, Luzynski explained.
“We have a strong volunteer medical reserve corps and we have all been trained to respond to events using the Incident Command System, a standardized approach to emergency management,” she said.
“We aim to continue to build relationships within our communities to ensure we have support and trust in all that we do,” Linda Scarborough, spokesperson for the health department, told The Register. & Bee.
In the end, when the Federal Drug Administration paved the way for the first vaccines — via emergency use authorizations — health service workers finally believed they were right around the corner, Luzynski.
Sovah Health also knew vaccines were the way out of the dark days.
“From the start, we knew the solution was a vaccine — I prayed for that,” Gunn-Nolan said. “Vaccines stop pandemics and save lives.”
But along this road, many obstacles have arisen. The main blockage was vaccine hesitancy, a problem that continues to plague rural areas.
“With low vaccination rates in our community, the difficulty has continued as more and more patients have lost their lives, and these will always be times that our staff will never forget,” Gunn-Nolan explained.
Local health district director Dr. Scott Spillmann has often likened the pandemic to a battle.
“If something like this were to happen again – an unknown disease suddenly striking – given what we have learned, we know you cannot go to war with only shields through masking and quarantine “, he told the Register & Bee. “You have to be equipped with swords, which we have now with vaccines.”