In Our Opinion: Public Health nurse exodus is cause for reckoning

It’s not unusual for the state Department of Health to assist a county with investigating people who tested positive for COVID-19 and tracing their recent contacts.

After all, the number of new cases may surge and the number of people doing the work may decline.

What is unusual is for the majority of public health nurses to suddenly quit, along with their supervisor and the health officer. Or for the supervisor and health officer to write scathing criticisms of the department they work for in letters of resignation.

The nurse practitioner and doctor wrote that the problems were so great that they felt they had to leave to protect their licenses.

When that happens, something is wrong. Which is the case in Island County Public Health.

While the county is hiring new people and training others, it’s not clear that all the underlying problems have been completely fixed. A couple of the county commissioners want to focus on moving forward, which is code for “nobody takes responsibility.”

Yes, these are unprecedented days and county public health departments everywhere are in the eye of the storm. But that doesn’t mean soul searching and a public accounting isn’t warranted — and healthy — when things go awry. It’s precisely because the public health department is so important that commissioners should take steps to assure the public that everything is actually fine.

Politicians and staff alike need to resist the urge to “spin” the facts and put the best face on everything.

Just tell it like it is.

Local resident Larry Behrendt has been interrogating the Board of Health and Island County Public Health officials about contact tracing for the last six months. He is rightly concerned because the process is vital in controlling the spread of the virus. Over and over, he was assured that everything is A-OK.

But it wasn’t. And it’s telling that an outsider, and perhaps one surly county commissioner, were the only ones asking the important questions.

The state is providing the county a valuable service by temporarily taking over case investigation and contact tracing — and also providing a health officer for awhile. But it’s not a perfect solution. By the state’s metrics, it doesn’t come close to meeting its own goals in contacting exposed people in a timely manner.

Unfortunately, the public, and apparently county leaders, don’t even know if the county’s efforts had been any more successful.

When the county returns to the business of case investigation and contract tracing, making this information publicly available is essential.

Transparency is key to good government. It’s a lesson officials keep learning.

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Melanie Bacon is and Island County Commissioner.
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