The departure of the St. Clair County Health Department’s chief official this month is shining a new light on an old question for the agency’s remaining staff.
How successful have they been in responding to the coronavirus?
Local health officials said they believe St. Clair County’s latest community health needs assessment is lending early credence to how they’ve been making decisions all along — including issuing two controversial COVID-related orders within the last year.
“That was always our final question,” Dr. Annette Mercatante, the county’s former medical health officer said. “We go through the risks, benefits, blah, blah, and then, what’s the right thing to do?”
Mercatante, whose contract expired this month, and the health department emerged as the targets for criticism and pushback among a cohort of angry residents, particularly parents with kids in school who opposed the temporary school mask mandate in 2002 and the quarantine order in 2021.
However, health department staff last week maintained they thought they’d heard from a vocal minority who disagreed with response measures. Public information officer Alyse Nichols said data collected in the community health needs assessment, or CHNA report, out this spring helped confirm it.
“Overwhelmingly, people followed guidance from the local health department and believed that it helped prevent,” she said Tuesday.
“Not to say we were always right,” Mercatante said. But she later added, “We were the last barrier.”
What does the CHNA say about COVID?
The CHNA commissioned in 2021 reflected telephone surveys with 1,000 St. Clair County adults, written responses from 332 residents in underserved communities, 30 online surveys from “key informants” who work in health care, and five in-depth interviews with “key stakeholders,” including hospital and clinic directors.
The county health department began sharing CHNA results in May.
Specific to COVID-19, the report covers vaccination issues, how respondents received information about the virus, how the local levels of preparedness were received, and more.
For example, three in 10 adults in the general population versus six in 10 of those in underserved areas reported that their lives were worse because of the pandemic.
When asked if measures taken in response to COVID were effective, 79.1% of adult respondents said yes. Citing the health department-recommended mitigation steps such as washing or sanitizing hands, wearing a mask, and distancing of six feet, roughly 96.1%, 84.6%, and 78.7% of responding adults, respectively, reported following that guidance.
Just 20.9% believed measures taken in response did not make a difference in combating COVID spread.
“And we were also rated the third most-trusted (established figure or agency) in the community, so the person’s physician, the CDC, and then us,” Mercatante said. “So, people for the most do trust us and do believe in what we do.”
That data on trusted sources applied to underserved adults with 30.8% naming the health department. About 62.3% and 37.7% named their own health care providers and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
COVID-19 deaths in rates per 100,000 was listed as the third-leading cause of death in St. Clair County after heart disease and cancer.
It was some of those potential outcomes that health department staff cited as they recalled weighing the January school mask order with Mercatante.
“Everything that occurred, everything that we talked about didn’t come out of a void,” said Diane Lois, the department’s emergency preparedness coordinator.
“A lot of these decisions were left to the locals because there, in my opinion, wasn’t great leadership from the state level,” said Greg Brown, the department’s administrator. “There was some serious gaps in the information early on, coming from the governor’s office through the state to us. We had to make the best decisions we could locally, and we did.”
Contact Jackie Smith at (810) 989-6270 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @Jackie20Smith.