It all started in March one year ago; the COVID-19 pandemic was coming our way, creeping into Ocean County case by case. An unprecedented public health crisis that impacted everyone and everything we do. The Ocean County Health Department (OCHD) was prepared for its arrival with emergency response plans (ERP) in place, but no one could predict what would transpire over the following 12 months.
“The OCHD watched closely how the pandemic was evolving overseas and its spread across the country and how those public health agencies were dealing with the outbreak,” explained Daniel Regenye, OCHD Public Health Coordinator/Health Officer. “We certainly hit the ground running and haven’t slowed down since day one of the pandemic. I’ve been extremely pleased with our dedicated staff; appreciate all the community partnerships we’ve had prior to the pandemic and the new relationships we cultivated over the year. But, most importantly, I’m very appreciative of the cooperation and support we’ve received from our residents despite the many challenges they’ve had to face on a daily basis.”
Some of the many important pieces that the action plan rolled out over the course of the year included dedicating special task force teams to provide guidance and support for school nurses and administrators and the 54 long-term care facilities in the county.
The OCHD was also one of the first counties in the State to implement a Contact Tracing/Disease Investigation Institute to train the more than 60 contact tracers counted on throughout the pandemic. Meanwhile, the OCHD contact tracing program has reached out to thousands of people working day and night to mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 virus and will continue well into 2021.
Another critical part of the ERP is for the emergency preparedness unit, nursing department and communicable disease staff to implement specific clinics to handle the emerging needs of the community. As COVID-19 converged with the influenza season, the OCHD held 32 flu vaccine clinics at different sites throughout Ocean County for the general public while also accommodating the homebound, homeless and individuals with particular needs. The flu vaccine clinics ran from October thru the end of December 2020 administering more than 1,100 doses to residents during a time when people needed it more than ever.
For 50 weeks leading up to now, the COVID-19 drive thru & indoor testing sight at Ocean County Community College held more than 165 clinics resulting in close to 30,000 residents being tested.
Once a COVID-19 vaccine was approved last December, the OCHD responded with its first vaccination clinic right before the New Year at the RWJ Barnabas Health Arena at Toms River High School North. Despite extreme shortages of supplies of weekly vaccine, the OCHD opened a second site shortly after at Southern Regional Middle School in Manahawkin. About 12 weeks and 82 clinics later, the OCHD has administered more than 63,000 first and second doses of the vaccine. Moving forward, the OCHD is expanding its COVID-19 vaccination clinic services with a third site at Manchester Elementary School. Additional clinic sites are also being set up throughout the county to accommodate more senior communities and special needs populations as well as the remainder of vaccine eligible individuals.
To accommodate the anticipated calls from residents and clinicians with COVID-19 questions and seeking guidance, the OCHD established a COVID-19 Information Hotline and email address early in the pandemic. The hotline became so successful that the hotline phone system eventually had to be upgraded to handle the high volume of calls. Since March 15, 2020 to March 10, 2021, the hotline has logged more than 54,820 calls while receiving 10,446 emails.
Data and statistics are always an essential part to the ERP. The COVID-19 dashboard on the OCHD website offers residents a snapshot from many of the important data sets behind the pandemic. The dashboard and website have been a consistent and reliable go-to source for residents with 1.2 million visitors and 1.3 million page views from March 8, 2020 to March 14, 2021.
Sharing the most up-to-date news, guidance, education and other crucial pandemic information to the public is an on-going essential effort. The OCHD established a free mobile phone app and its public information/risk communications team reached residents through the mass media by issuing 388 daily media advisories and 90 press releases and more than 1,100 Facebook and 812 Twitter posts during the pandemic. Dozens of educational videos and public service announcements were also produced for social media and the OCHD YouTube channel; several airing on numerous local radio stations and cable television networks.
The pandemic also impacted the two Ocean County Animal Facilities. Open public hours were changed to appointment only and employee work shifts were adjusted. However, the changes did not adversely affect the number of adopted shelter pets. Residents adopted 964 cats and dogs from March 2020 to March 2021.
“That’s only a slight decrease from the amount of adoptions from the prior year – which was anticipated due to the significant decrease in impounds. We really didn’t know what to expect, but many people told us they wanted to use all the time spent at home to adopt while they had the opportunity to train and bond with a new four-legged member of the family,” added Brian Lippai, OCHD Public Information Officer.
“As much as we may train and prepare for these events, there will always be times when you’ll have to tweak or deviate from the best laid plans,” added Regenye. “We have to be flexible and evolve just as the virus itself and the medical research behind it. You’re always pleased when something works according to the way it was originally laid out, but you learn to adapt very quickly and the OCHD will continue to do so as we navigate the latest chapter of the pandemic.”
For additional information please visit us at www.ochd.org or the OCHD Facebook page. OCHD COVID-19 Information Hotline: 732-380-5079 (local) and 833-544-0288 (toll free).