Local health officials say surveys help validate COVID-19 decisions

The departure of the chief official of the St. Clair County Health Department this month sheds new light on an old issue for the agency’s remaining staff.

How successful have they been in responding to the coronavirus?

Local health officials said they believe the latest St. Clair County Community Health Needs Assessment lends early credibility to how they have been making decisions from the start, including issuing two orders controversial COVID-related issues over the past year.

“That was always our last question,” said Dr. Annette Mercatante, the county’s former medical officer of health. “We go through the risks, the benefits, blah, blah, and then what’s the right thing to do?”

Mercatante, whose contract expired this month, and the health department have become the targets of criticism and pushback among a cohort of angry residents, especially parents with children in school who have objected to the temporary school mask mandate in 2002 and the quarantine order in 2021.

However, health department staff said last week they believe they heard a vocal minority who disagreed with the response measures. Alyse Nichols, public information officer, said data collected as part of the Community Health Needs Assessment, or CHNA report, released this spring helped confirm this.

“The overwhelming majority of people took the advice of the local health department and believed it helped prevent,” she said on 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 of 1,000 adults in St. Clair County, written responses from 332 residents of underserved communities, 30 online surveys of “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 local preparedness levels were received, and more.

For example, three in 10 adults in the general population versus six in 10 in underserved areas said their lives were worse because of the pandemic.

When asked if the measures taken in response to COVID were effective, 79.1% of adult respondents said yes. Citing health department recommended mitigation measures such as hand washing or sanitizing, wearing a mask and six foot distancing, around 96.1%, 84.6% and 78.7 % of responding adults, respectively, said they followed this advice.

Only 20.9% believed that the measures taken in response had not made a difference in the fight against the spread of COVID.

“And we’ve also been ranked third (established person or agency) in community trust, so the person’s doctor, the CDC, and then us,” Mercatante said. “So most people trust us and believe in what we do.”

These data on trusted sources applied to underserved adults, with 30.8% citing the health department. About 62.3% and 37.7% named their own healthcare providers and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

COVID-19 deaths in rates per 100,000 have been listed as the third leading cause of death in St. Clair County after heart disease and cancer.

These are some of those potential outcomes that health department staff cited as they recalled weighing January’s school mask order with Mercatante.

“Not everything that happened, everything that we talked about came out of nowhere,” said Diane Lois, the ministry’s emergency preparedness coordinator.

“A lot of those decisions were left to locals because, in my opinion, there wasn’t great leadership from the state,” said Greg Brown, the department’s administrator. “There were serious information gaps early on, coming from the governor’s office across the state all the way to us. We had to make the best decisions we could locally, and we did.

Contact Jackie Smith at (810) 989-6270 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @Jackie20Smith.

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