Clallam County Health Officer Dr. Allison Berry sees a serious need for more public health outreach to the West End in a post-COVID-19 world, she said this week, a stance shared by her counterpart in Jefferson County.
Berry painted a post-pandemic picture of public health services Tuesday afternoon at a county Board of Health meeting.
Jefferson County has a population of residents in need of health services in its own western reaches, an area closer to Forks and Aberdeen than it is to Port Townsend, Health Officer Dr. Tom Locke said Wednesday.
Berry warned residents they have not yet beaten the virus, but with vigilance could see daylight by June or July.
“If we continue our current trajectory of [COVID] vaccination and social distancing measures, physical distancing measures, we could really see our lives largely return to normal by this summer,” Berry said.
“If we let down our guard right now, we will have a fourth wave, and if we have a fourth wave, it will delay getting back to normal, so instead of celebrating our return to normal in July or July, you’ll be celebrating that return in October or November.
“You will see it start to affect the next school year, all those kinds of things we don’t want to happen.”
Queried by Mark Ozias, health board member and Clallam County commission chair, Berry said when she looks at life after COVID, she asks what are the critical needs of the population.
That includes maternal-child health, which, in Clallam County, was reflected in 2019 in stark terms: The county had the highest infant mortality rate in Washington for the previous decade, related mostly to infants suffocating in Sudden Unexplained Infant Deaths.
“There are traceable issues there that we can work on,” Berry said.
“We are working right now with Jefferson Public Health on potentially reinvigorating the nurse-family partnership to have a public health nurse to go out to families and help them with that critical transition period for caring for an infant,” she said.
Berry saved discussing the most dire area, geographically speaking, until her final brush stroke.
“Last but not least, we would really like to expand our work on the West End,” she said.
Forks, Clallam Bay and the rest of the western county has some of the least adequate public health services, she said.
A county public health nurse visits the West End a couple of days a week.
A half-time nurse position would help fill that gap, Berry said.
“There’s a lot of work we could do on the West End,” she said.
“I hope we’ve learned from [the pandemic].”
Bill Peach, health board member and Port Angeles-West End county commissioner, praised her personal outreach to the West End’s Guatemalan community, which faces deep language barriers with non-Guatemalans.
Peach added that the annual stand-down event to provide services for homeless West End veterans “brings people literally out of the woods” who are dealing with tremendous issues in their lives.
“There are people stealing from each other and beating up each other and end up with medical needs that don’t get met,” Peach said.
Other West End residents are confined to their homes and have difficulty getting to clinics, he added.
A thousand residents in Jefferson’s isolated West End are in need of services, an area that the county traditionally partners with Clallam County to serve, Locke estimated.
“School-based clinics are something that has huge potential,” he added.
Fire departments are funded to fight fires before they happen, Locke said, adding public health should be funded with the same mindset.
“We hope the pandemic is a wake-up call to state and federal government that, when you fail to [financially] intervene in public health systems, it’s not there when you need it,” Locke said.
Another unmet need in Clallam County has been an overall vaccination program, Berry said.
“We have not had adequate paid staff to do that until now,” she said.
While the large-scale vaccinations being conducted eventually won’t be needed, “we will always need to do vaccinations,” Berry said.
“There is still a need to bring health care services to people.”
Berry said the county public health department has played a critical role in ensuring clinics, hospitals and first-responders “are all playing from the same table” and communicating with each other during the pandemic.
“I think there are ways for us to continue doing that kind of work going forward,” she said.
Berry announced at the meeting Tuesday that she has finally filled a full-time public health nurse position.
It has been open for “well over a year,” Ozias said Wednesday, pointing to a competitive job-placement environment aggravated by the pandemic.
Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at [email protected].