PORT ANGELES — Clallam County will add temporary staff to improve its COVID-19 response while seeking state assistance for more contact tracing.
The three commissioners Monday approved a request from the Health and Human Services Department to hire an environmental health employee for up to one year.
He or she will handle calls and work with businesses on COVID-19 infection control, freeing up other staff for contact tracing during outbreaks such as the one Clallam County recently experienced.
Meanwhile, county officials will seek additional contact tracers from the state to help identify and quarantine those who may have been exposed to the highly contagious virus.
“Any step that we can take that improves our chance of having a healthier community that will facilitate schools operating normally, and that won’t require additional business closures or restrictions, really needs to be our top priority,” Commissioner Mark Ozias said in a Monday work session.
Kevin LoPiccolo, Clallam County Health and Human Services deputy director, said the recent spike in COVID-19 cases had put the department in a “precarious position” for outbreak control.
“Current staff at this point cannot keep up with the volume of calls, contact investigation and the need for infection control,” LoPiccolo said.
In May, commissioners agreed to hire more Health and Human Services employees for the COVID-19 response.
The three new hires fell under a public safety exemption to a county hiring freeze that has persisted throughout the pandemic.
Clallam County Environmental Health Director Jennifer Garcelon said the department had received more than 180 COVID-19-related calls from businesses and individuals since the end of May.
“Over 100 of those were requests for assistance from businesses, and over 80 of those were complaints on businesses,” Garcelon said.
The Clallam County Emergency Operations Center has 43 volunteers available to help with the county’s COVID-19 response, LoPiccolo said.
“You can only ask your volunteers to do so much,” Commissioner Randy Johnson said.
LoPiccolo said the temporary employee would help the county “stay on top” of future outbreaks.
Johnson requested information on the short- and long-term staffing needs of Health and Human Services.
“You’re one of the critical functions in this county,” Johnson told LoPiccolo.
“If I were a citizen, that’s absolutely what I would want to have covered, whether it be COVID-19 or the opioid crisis or the inspection of the food installations or whatever.”
COVID-19 has been the primary focus of Health and Human Services since March, LoPiccolo said.
County Chief Financial Officer Mark Lane suggested commissioners consider other options for contact tracing, including non-uniformed National Guard members provided by the state.
“My issue is we’re always at the end of the pipeline,” Johnson said. “We’re the last one to get anything, it seems like, from the state. I shouldn’t make that statement, but it sure feels that way every time we do something.”
LoPiccolo said contact tracing could involve 40 to 60 phone calls per outbreak.
“It just keeps on multiplying the more people that we talk to,” LoPiccolo said.
“We’re just trying to do our best on keeping everything at bay, given the total cases that we’re experiencing right now.”
Clallam County is considered to be at high risk for COVID-19 because it has had more than 75 cases per 100,000 population in the past two weeks.
Ozias said it would “make sense” to add a temporary staffer for COVID-19 while exploring state resources.
“My inclination would be to really start both processes at once,” Ozias said.
Commissioner Bill Peach said he, too, favored a two-pronged approach.
“Let us look for additional resources,” Peach said.
“I strongly recommend that we take immediate action,” he added.
LoPiccolo said it would take two to four weeks to fill the temporary position through a professional services agreement.
Peach said he would support the idea of working with the National Guard for contact tracing.
“If anything, I think that we should be prepared for a worse situation than what we are dealing with today,” Peach said.
Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at [email protected].