With metrics improving, Rowan Health Department moves to new stage of COVID-19 response

Published 5:16 pm Wednesday, March 9, 2022

SALISBURY — As Rowan County’s COVID-19 metrics continue to improve from an omicron variant-induced spike, the Health Department has turned its attention to the future.

“We knew, based on the science, that omicron was going to have a really high uptick and a really high drop off,” Health Director Alyssa Harris said. “We started thinking: OK, what’s next?”

On Tuesday night, Harris spelled out the department’s new COVID-19 campaign for the Board of Health. The strategy is called #RowanSTRONGER.

STRONGER is an acronym with each letter representing a particular effort included in the approach. The goal of the campaign is to ensure the department remains prepared for any future variants while working toward goals such as higher vaccination rates and improved community health.

“We want to continue to be vigilant and continue to address COVID-19, but we’re just transitioning the way that we think about it,” Harris said. “Because we know if we just start looking at other things, we’re going to see another wave of COVID and not be prepared for it. We want to be prepared, but we also want to address the new needs we’re seeing.”

The S in STRONGER stands for shots. Harris said the department will shift its vaccination strategy from an “acute” response featuring mass vaccination clinics to “a vial in every fridge” approach. It shifts the responsibility of vaccinating individuals to health care providers and doctor’s offices, where people appear to be more receptive to receiving the vaccine, Harris said.

“For us, it’s working with those places where people are already going to get their vaccine instead of holding events where we’re actually vaccinating people on site,” Harris said. “What we’ve found, what we’ve heard from the research that’s been done, is that people want to hear it from their provider.”

Ensuring primary care providers are stocked with vaccines, she said, will be especially critical for improving vaccination rates in children.

“Really for that 5 to 11 year old range, those vaccines are going to be best received by their pediatrician,” Harris said.

The T in STRONGER stands for testing. The Health Department will continue to offer testing and provide information to the public on where tests are offered while also distributing at-home testing kits in the community. Harris said the goal is to formulate a plan to expand access to testing after holidays when people might be gathering in large numbers or traveling.

The R in STRONGER is for readiness. The Health Department will give N95 masks to community members while monitoring COVID-19 numbers, primarily using the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s new community level tools. The tool takes into account more than just positive tests. Rowan County is currently listed in the “green/low,” the safety classification. If that level changes, Harris wants the department to be prepared.

“We’re going to stay on top of that and communicate with our community when we see a change and just try to have some rapid mobilization around that,” Harris said.

The O in STRONGER represents outreach. Harris said the Health Department feels like it has been very “Salisbury-centric” and will work to improve outreach efforts throughout the entire county, including more rural and far-reaching communities.

The N in STRONGER stands for new normal. COVID-19 is here to stay, Harris said, so the department will continue to foster a spirit of cooperation and cohesion in the community. Harris said the department will focus on continuing relationships that have been built during the pandemic with other healthcare agencies and providers.

The G in STRONGER is for goals. The Health Department aims to improve vaccination rates across age demographics. The plan is to increase rates among people ages 5 to 11 by 10% by December and 5% in people between 12 and 24. For individuals 25-49, the department hopes to improve the county’s vaccination rate by 3%.

“We do want to continue to see vaccine rates increase among those age groups,” Harris said.

The E stands for education, which Harris said will be dispelling misinformation about COVID-19 and working with local schools, daycares and nursing facilities to ensure that vulnerable populations have the most accurate information.

Board Member Carla Rose said she would like to educate the community on the accuracy of testing. Rose said rapid tests can display inaccurate results and she wants to make people aware a negative rapid test doesn’t mean he or she is COVID-free. People should take precautions if they have symptoms or have been exposed to COVID-19, regardless of a rapid test result.

“As soon as you start feeling bad, there is no harm in putting a mask on and addressing it like you do have COVID,” Harris said.

Harris said the department may wait for more accurate testing to be developed before handing out at-home kits.

The final letter, R, means responsibility. Harris said she also likes to think of R as resilience. During the pandemic, Rowan County suffered more deaths per 100,000 people than surrounding communities. There have been 561 deaths in Rowan County attributed to COVID-19, which is more than any neighboring county and the sixth most in the state.

“How can we start to address those things, those underlying factors that led to Rowan County having a higher death rate than other communities?” Harris said.

The goal is to harness existing programs, including Healthy Rowan, and new programs such as Rowan Moves to improve the baseline health of local residents, Harris said. That means reducing or preventing chronic disease, obesity and other precursors or comorbidities that can lead to a “negative” COVID-19 outcome.

“What’s wrong with the health of our community and how do we start fixing that now so, if another wave comes up or another pandemic happens in the future, we have a more robust community that we aren’t going to be starting at that lower baseline of health?” Harris asked.

After Harris presented the plan to Board of Health members, Chair Dari Caldwell asked if there are any resources available to help people who have lost a loved one due to COVID-19.

“I know a couple people that lost loved ones to COVID and they’re not doing well,” Caldwell said. “They’re not coping well. They’re feeling guilty. They’re feeling just extreme grief and like they should’ve insisted they get vaccinated, just the whole thing. We might be able to learn from these people too as to why this happened.”

Board member Mary Ponds suggested creating a new grief counseling program as part of the new normal initiative.

“I feel like we are going to have to reckon with the very serious trauma we’ve experienced as a community,” Harris said.

About Ben Stansell

Ben Stansell covers business, county government and more for the Salisbury Post. He joined the staff in August 2020 after graduating from the University of Alabama. Email him at ben.stansell@salisburypost.com.

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