Health department ready for any crisis

Published 6:01 pm Saturday, February 6, 2016

If Western Tidewater is lucky, it will never experience a true public health emergency.

But if it does, the public can rest assured that the Western Tidewater Health District is up to the task, said John Cooke, the district’s emergency coordinator.

The district — which encompasses Suffolk, Franklin and Isle of Wight and Southampton counties — recently got the seal of approval from the National Association of City and County Health Officials. That organization has partnered with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to sponsor Project Public Health Ready, a peer review of the health districts’ emergency preparedness programs nationwide.

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Western Tidewater is one of roughly 450 local health departments in the country that has received the recognition, Cooke said. It’s second time the department has gotten the distinction.

“It’s a sign that the health department is ready to deal with a public health emergency,” said Cooke. “The main takeaway is for people to realize there is an emergency preparedness arm to public health and to know there are people here thinking about those things and here working behind the scenes … to make sure we are ready.”

Cooke said he had to submit documentation that Western Tidewater has a thorough, coordinated emergency response plan in place and that the agency’s 100 employees and 180 volunteers were trained to protect the community’s health during an emergency.

In the event of a public health disaster, volunteers — particularly medical personnel — would play a crucial role, Cooke said. Medical volunteers, who have preapproved credentials and training, would be allowed to dispense pills, give shots and work directly with the public.

The process of getting the recognition took about a year, Cooke said.

“It was arduous,” he said.

According to Cooke, the first step involved a stem-to-stern appraisal of the district’s hazard response plans, including administrative preparedness, hazard analysis, functional staff roles, community preparedness, medical countermeasures dispensing, mass care, mass fatality, disaster behavioral health, isolation and quarantine, continuity of operations, volunteer management and recovery plans.

The second component included an analysis of workforce development capabilities, including a training needs assessment, Cooke said. The third part assessed the department’s ability to respond to public health emergencies and looked at tools used to respond to real world events.

The newest worry on Cooke’s — and other public health departments nationwide — is the Zika virus, a mosquito-borne virus currently sweeping through Brazil. There have been a couple of cases reported in the United States from people who traveled recently to countries where Zika virus outbreaks have been reported.

As recently as Friday morning, the state Department of Health communicated with local departments about the Zika virus, Cooke said.