This is part II of a two part series on the Dickinson County Health Department and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Disease outbreaks are not unique to Dickinson County.

Good hygiene, handwashing and quarantines have been preached for well over a decode in the county.

The first reported cases of the H1N1 virus in Kansas, known as the swine flu, were two people living in Dickinson County in April 2009.

That became the first pandemic since the Hong Kong Flu of 1968 and 1969. The swine flu was similar to COVID-19 as the virus was highly contagious and spread from people touching a surface or object with the flu virus on it and then touching their mouths or noses.

That was followed by an outbreak of pertussis, also known as whooping cough, in 2011 and 2012.

“Whooping cough was similar to this with contact tracing and trying to get ahold of contacts and close contacts at schools, just like this did,” said John Hultgren, director of the Dickinson County Health Department. “They didn’t shut stuff down like they did with this one.”

Weaver said with whooping cough there was a vaccine in place.

“The length of it was not like what we have here,” Hultgren said. “We were pretty taken aback with that for maybe two and a half to three weeks before we had it pretty well under control. Obviously, this is a much different animal.”

Whooping cough spread from person to person by coughing or sneezing.

The Dickinson County Health Department is responsible for the reporting and prevention of diseases in Dickinson County.

COVID-19 is a reportable disease by statute and all tests related to COVID-19 have to be reported to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. There are close to 80 reportable diseases on the KDHE list. They range from common diseases such as measles, rabies and hepatitis to rare diseases of anthrax, cholera, smallpox and polio.

Once a disease has been discovered, the first contact is immediately to the local health department in Kansas and then to KDHE.

Coming months

If the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t yet put a strain on the eight members of the Dickinson County Health Department, which is still maintaining its regular duties, the fall months certainly will.

One of the several responsibilities of the department is to administer flu vaccines.

The department sets up clinics at the local schools and also stick around after hours to administer flu vaccines to the public.

“That has worked out really good,” Hultgren said.

But once a COVID-19 vaccine is found, the number of injections could greatly increase.

Hultgren said a vaccine is on the fast track and he expects, shortly after the regular flu shots are given, there will a large demand for the early COVID-19 vaccine.

“Does it meet the criteria of all vaccines that they study for three or four years? It’s not,” he said of the early testing. 

However, he said, a survey showed that up to 70 percent of the population would take the vaccine when it is available. He said 24 percent said they wouldn’t and the others were undecided. 

Brenda Weaver, deputy health director, said science and the vaccine will evolve.

“We don’t treat high blood pressure, heart attack and diabetes now like we did 20 years ago,” she said of the early vaccine. “We will continue to evolve based on the science and the data.”

Contagious

COVID-19 spreads faster than common influenza.

“They preach that it is highly contagious,” Hultgren said. “There have been so many things that have been guesstimates.”

He said first they thought maybe the warm weather would slow it down.

“If you look at a map where all of the hot spots are, it’s the southern part of the United States: Arizona, Florida, Texas. That is obviously the warmest part of the country,” he said.

Another theory was that humidity would slow it down.

“The more air becomes heavier, the droplets would fall to the ground quickly and not stay airborne as long. Well, there’s Louisiana and Mississippi that are humid,” he said. 

The big question now is, if you had COVID, how long will one be immune?

Hultgren said the COVID-19 vaccine could require a second followup shot.

“It’s only been in the United States, technically, since February. So we are only several months into it, even having someone in the United States that has had it for a period of time,” he said. “They are still studying that. There are a lot of unknowns.”

Health officer

Not all of the 105 counties in Kansas have a physician as the county health officer. Dickinson County is one that does.

Dr. Dennis Biggs served in that capacity until he retired. Dr. Brian Holmes, who was the physician for the Emergency Medical Services, then assumed the role of county health officer.

“Since we had a working relationship, it was natural,” Hultgren said of Holmes taking over as the county health officer.

Hultgren was the director of EMS before he became the director of the health department. 

Both the health department staff and the health department officer are always in close contact with the KDHE at the state level.

Hultgren said phone calls to KDHE Secretary Lee Norman have been common.

Contact Tim Horan at editor@abilene-rc.com.

Contact Tim Horan at editor@abilene-rc.com.

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