With efficient communication established, county prepares for unknown future of coronavirus
The County Gin reached out to Wharton County Office of Emergency Management Coordinator Andy Kirkland, as well as Debbie Cenko, the deputy emergency management coordinator (DEMC), for an update on the agency’s response and overall status of COVID-19 in the area. Read more about his perspective on the global pandemic and how it has affected the local community, as well as predictions for the future of coronavirus.
Q: When were you first made aware of COVID-19?
A: The Wharton County Office of Emergency Management (OEM) was made aware of COVID-19 when the news first broke in January.
‘We knew early on the messaging had to be consistent in social distancing, masks and regular hand-washing.’
Q: What were some of the first steps the county took to address it?
A: Wharton County OEM participated in state calls with the Department of State Health Services (DSHS) and TDEM (Texas Department of Emergency Management), as well as watching the world news on the virus.
Q: I recognize this is the first emergency of its kind to impact the county. How was the county prepared? How did it adapt?
A: The county has a pandemic plan, but it’s for pandemics with vaccines. Thus, we relied on information coming from the CDC and conversations with DSHS and our local medical authority. We knew early on the messaging had to be consistent in social distancing, masks and regular hand-washing.
‘At first, we could attribute some of (the surge of positive cases) to more testing, but it seems like folks are getting pandemic fatigue and are not being diligent in their social-distancing and pandemic hygiene etiquette.’
Q: What kind of correspondence was established with the state and federal government?
A: The state established regular conference calls, disseminating information from those calls to us.
Q: When you first heard about the virus, did you think it would have the impact it has? Did you believe the disaster declarations/shelter-in-place/emergency orders would last as long as they have?
A: I (Debbie) did think that it would have the impact (and maybe worse) that it has. I also thought the shelter-in-place orders would last longer (I predicted June 15).
Q: Were supplies like face masks, gloves and test kits made available relatively soon after a disaster was declared? If not, when were they made available?
A: We procured masks and gloves relatively quickly through a private vendor. We did the same for hand sanitizer.
Since then, the Teas Department of Emergency Management (TDEM) has pushed four packs of PPE to Wharton County.
We feel we have a sufficient amount for now. The state has assured us that there is plenty on-hand for surges of the disease in the future.
Q: Is there a county “task force” to manage the response? How is the department organized?
A: There is no “task force.”
The emergency management department consists of the county judge (Phillip Spenrath) as the Emergency Management Director. That is his position by state statute.
In most counties, the county judge appoints Emergency Management Coordinators (EMC). Our EMC is Andy Kirkland and Debbie Cenko is the Deputy Emergency Management Coordinator (DEMC).
We work closely with the EMCs and DEMCs of the incorporated cities — East Bernard, Wharton and El Campo.
Q: What are some key topics discussed?
A: Right now, our discussions are about PPE, testing, trends, case logs, perceptions in the community, messaging, hospitals and any specific problems in each locale.
Q: Can you describe what communication with the state looks like? What does it entail? Is it efficient?
A: At the onset of the disaster, we had daily conference calls with the state, now it’s once a week; we speak or have email communication with the Department of State Health Services (DSHS) daily.
DSHS supplies us with the case information. We get gender, age range and address of each positive case. No names.
We also do not get information about source of transmission.
Q: How does the reporting system work?
A: As we get reports from DSHS, we enter the data into our own spreadsheets so that we can manipulate the data easily.
Q: How are reports generated? How often are they disseminated to the public?
A: The detail we receive is then used to prepare a daily press release.
That is run by the public information officers in the county and then after it is finalized, it is disseminated to the public via Facebook and webpages.
Q: Do you agree with plans to reopen at this time?
A: We are in favor of a phased-in plan balancing economic and health issues.
‘It is extremely challenging to communicate when there are so many opinions about the disease.’
Q: There have been a spike in cases recently. What factors do you believe are contributing to this increase in positive cases?
A: At first, we could attribute some of it to more testing, but it seems like folks are getting pandemic fatigue and are not being as diligent in their social-distancing and pandemic hygiene etiquette.
Q: Is more testing being done? Are more tests being made available to citizens?
A: More testing has been done. Though we do not have plans to bring back the National Guard testing teams any time soon, we are told that CVS will start testing today.
We will continue to see how we can assist in testing, but the Call Center has been overloaded and has hurt testing in Wharton County.
Q: What are the criteria for being tested? Do you need to exhibit symptoms? Do you need insurance?
A: If someone wants to get tested at one of the two hospitals in Wharton County, they should have an order from their Primary Care Physician (PCP).
At the hospitals, you should have insurance or be prepared to pay, according to what we’ve been told. If someone wants to be tested by one of the Military Test Teams (MTTs), you do not have to be exhibiting symptoms, but you must have an appointment. You will be screened for symptoms at CVS.
Q: Where are testing sites in Wharton County?
A: Either hospital, some doctors’ offices and beginning today, CVS.
Q: Approximately how many citizens have been tested through these sites?
A: The Military Test Teams (MTTs) have tested approximately 700 people in our county over the past two months.
State-wide, more than 30,000 people are being tested a day.
Q: Do you believe that the numbers will continue to increase as testing becomes more prevalent?
A: Yes, we do.
Q: Do you think that reopening is a contributing factor to the increase in cases?
Q: Are some cases going unreported?
A: We know of no cases that weren’t reported.
Q: Have you found it challenging to effectively communicate information when there’s such a disparity or wide range of opinion regarding the virus itself?
A: It is extremely challenging to communicate when there are so many opinions about the disease.
We simply try to communicate consistent messaging based on the best science we are hearing from the state and CDC.
People will continue to interpret as they wish.
Q: Looking back on the past three or four months, do you believe the county could have done anything differently as far as communication, preparedness, testing, etc.?
A: We don’t believe we could have done anything differently because of the nature of the new disaster.
For any recurring waves or spikes, we will have adequate PPE on hand based on the quantities that we are burning through now.
‘We feel prepared for (a second wave of the COVID-19 virus). We have constantly been evolving throughout the last three months of the disease.’
Q: Do you believe the county was equipped with the proper resources and tools to effectively communicate information to citizens?
Q: Is the county prepared for a potential second wave? If so, how?
A: We feel prepared for it.
We have constantly been evolving throughout the last three months of the disease.
Our communication with our elected officials, both local and state-wide, has improved and sources for PPE or other equipment has expanded.
Q: Do you feel social media has helped or hurt communication between citizens and the county?
A: The citizens shape the response; we just disseminate the information and try to clarify if and when necessary.
‘We are very fortunate that we have only seen one death since the onset of the disease in our county. We are sad for that loss and truly pray we will not see another.’
Q: In your opinion, what has been the most frustrating aspect of this experience overall?
A: Just the novelty of the virus itself has lent the country’s response to almost a trial-and-error mode.
The CDC has changed its stance on preventative measure, the symptoms have expanded, treatments have been modified and models have changed — everything is new.
It’s not like a flood or hurricane, which we can predict based on the best information from meteorologists and hydrologists.
Q: What do you project for the future of the county in the months to come?
A: We predict we will see cases increasing as long as citizens gather without precautions.
Q: What is your advice to the citizens of Wharton County as we move forward?
A: The message is the same since the beginning: wash hands frequently; wear masks when out in public; socially distance — stay 6 feet from one another; and avoid crowds, especially if you are a member of the vulnerable population (over 60 and/or have underlying conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, lung disease, obesity, etc.)
We are very fortunate that we have only seen one death since the onset of the disease in our county. We are sad for that loss and truly pray we will not see another.
For more information regarding COVID-19 in Wharton County, follow the Wharton County Office of Emergency Management (OEM) on Facebook, subscribe to The County Gin for future articles and updates or find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram at @thecountygin.