This isn’t Gina Uhing’s first pandemic.
The current director of the Elkhorn Logan Valley Public Health Department has worked in the department for 15 years, including during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic.
“That was a much smaller version of what we are dealing with now,” Uhing said. “Nonetheless, it was an applicable experience.”
Having been here during that pandemic, which was also called the swine flu, Uhing said it gave her good experience for the current COVID-19 pandemic.
“This coronavirus subject matter started crossing our paths in January,” Uhing said. “It was a virus that was overseas, and I wasn’t coming at it with zero knowledge or experience.”
Uhing said she believes overall that Madison, Stanton, Cuming and Burt counties have fared well containing it. Madison County did have a spike in numbers during the Tyson Foods outbreak, but that’s been the most significant aspect, she said.
“Now it has plateaued,” she said. “There might be a couple of additional cases, but we’re not getting 40 or 50 new cases a day.”
One of the reasons might be because the Elkhorn Logan Valley Public Health Department was aggressive about putting guidance and recommendations out early on — ahead of the state’s recommendations.
“We got in front of it so we didn’t have to react to it as much,” Uhing said.
The recommendations were a major change for everyone, affecting how many places did business. Now some of the restrictions are starting to ease, but those places are faring well because they were aggressive. That also includes places like schools, daycares, long-term care facilities, churches and regional gathering places.
As of Thursday, the district had 378 positive cases out of more than 3,100 tests. Madison County has had the most tests and positive cases with 316 out of 2,600 testing positive. All four deaths in the district have been in Madison County.
Uhing said given all the additional testing that is taking place now, that’s incredible that the numbers remain as low as they are.
Melanie Thompson, emergency response coordinator with the Elkhorn Logan Valley Public Health Department, said the department has a lot of responsibilities besides dealing with pandemics.
In the past, the department has completed such varied emergency tasks as providing tetanus shots at flooded areas or assisting at an accident if there is a human health component to it.
“Now we are at the forefront as a primary response agency for this pandemic,” Thompson said. “We have worked in conjunction with emergency management and law enforcement and EMS and fire and other partners. We have done a lot of planning for various scenarios, including disease outbreak.”
Usually the training involved some type of bird influenza, but it also has included Ebola and other possible disease outbreaks, Thompson said.
Right before Christmas, the district had heard about this “weird type of influenza” that had hit China “and maybe we should start dusting off our pandemic flu plan — just in case,” she said.
By the end of January, Thompson said she was probably on four to five calls and webinars daily that dealt with preparing for the coronavirus. By February, that ramped up further.
“It was no longer a question of if this is going to hit, but when,” Thompson said.
And as good as things appear to be going now, the pandemic is far from over.
Uhing said there could be a wave or an outbreak “that grows wings at any point.”
“There’s a lot of virus out in the community yet,” she said. “Testing has increased, and our positives have disproportionately increased — at a low rate.”
As health department employees, they have been warned to prepare to manage this for 18 months to two years.
While there isn’t light yet at the end of the tunnel, health care officials and the communities are managing what is coming at them right now, she said.
“We do expect it to fizzle away a little bit but then show back up in time,” Uhing said. “It will run its course again, then fizzle away. Those are what we call the waves. We don’t know how many waves we are going to get, but we are anticipating there to be a second wave for sure, and maybe a third and fourth wave.”
Thompson said a key will be how quickly a vaccine is developed and how quickly the population can develop an immunity to it. There’s even some talk that people can be reinfected after having it.
“The data is not all in yet,” Thompson said. “The common cold is a coronavirus and, as we all know, you can get a cold three or four times a year.”