2020 Difference Makers: Cape Girardeau County Public Health Center

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As the COVID-19 pandemic reached the Cape Girardeau community, the Cape Girardeau County Public Health Center responded with education in an organized effort to slow the spread of the virus in the county.

Director Jane Wernsman, health educator Maria Davis and public health researcher Autumn Grim, among others, were all vital in the county health department's response and continued management of the COVID-19 virus in Cape Girardeau County.

In late February, as other geographic areas reported rising cases of the COVID-19 virus, the Cape County Infectious Disease Task Force met to create a proactive plan for the region, Wernsman said.

"It's just for all of us to try to identify what our roles and responses would be, without having any firm facts or figures at that time," Wernsman said.

The task force, composed of representatives from the health department, hospitals, law enforcement, school districts, university and county commission, has met annually since 2006.

The group focused on information-sharing, speculation and discussion on community response to the rapidly spreading virus that had just arrived in the United States. Wernsman said many questions were raised that day -- when dealing with the novel coronavirus, much at that point was unknown. "Not really knowing where the country was, or the state for that matter," she said. "So just trying to organize and inform the members of that infectious disease task force to take back to their respective agencies."

Grim said that as the task force discussed what the response would look like, they met with churches, long term care facilities and other organizations to form a universal plan as well as provide education on the best practices.

In early July, the county health department also created a countywide Emergency Face Covering Order, effective July 13, that would require community members over the age of 9 to wear a face covering in public areas. As the July 10 news release states, face coverings can help to reduce the spread of COVID-19; this was an effort by the department to control the virus in Cape Girardeau county.

The department also coordinated with the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services to receive information and respond to individual COVID-19 cases. This response includes contact tracing, which helps to identify individuals who might be infected with the virus through close personal contacts.

While completing contact tracing on individual cases, the health department also identified local businesses that may have been exposed to COVID-19 in a list that was published July 6. To keep the public informed on the local impact of the virus, the department also published a daily update with total cases numbers, recoveries, active cases and deaths.

They worked tirelessly to provide information to the Cape Girardeau County community, investigate local COVID-19 cases and contact individuals who might have been exposed. Wernsman said some of the most vital questions centered on patient care -- what symptoms are the patient experiencing? How are they feeling, and what measures need to be taken?

Overall, the most challenging part of handling the COVID-19 pandemic is the rapidly changing information surrounding the virus, Wernsman said, as well as the many different facets of responding to the virus.

"I think managing all the different moving part that's been associated with this whole pandemic, from not only the working one-on-one with individuals who have tested positive, working with those who have been in contact, but also working within our community, with other community agencies," she said. "They have a lot of questions, and rightfully so, because we're all trying to work on this and figure this all out together."