County governments, regional schools pivot to contain rising coronavirus cases
From disseminating important transmission data to overseeing infection control mandates and hosting community-wide vaccination clinics, counties have played an integral role in the public response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. By the beginning of last month, county clinics had delivered more than more than 325 million of the nation’s 381 million individual COVID-19 vaccine doses, according to a study published by the National Association of Counties (NACo).
“Counties operate over 1,900 public health departments and support nearly 1,000 hospitals and over 800 long-term care facilities,” said Paul Guequierre, director of communications at NACo. They have been on the frontline for the last year “delivering services to our residents, fighting to end the pandemic and rebuilding our economies for the future.”
With transmission rates currently trending upward, the important role of regional governments is again being thrust into the national spotlight. They are racing to boost vaccination rates and pivoting to meet evolving community needs—with outreach efforts tailored to each locality.
In Prince George’s County, Md., for example, County Executive Angela Alsobrooks noted in NACo’s analysis that her government has worked to forge “strategic partnerships to boost vaccine access and provided critical information to residents in targeted zip codes, through neighborhood canvassing, calls and texts.”
Sedgwick County, Kan.’s health department partnered with The Wichita Black Nurses Association to bring mobile vaccination clinics to local churches in minority communities. Elsewhere, the Athens City-County Health Department in Ohio enlisted student nurses from Ohio University to aide in their vaccination drive. Frederick County, Md.’s health department offers vaccinations to people who come for meals at its county soup kitchen and at the Alan P. Linton, Jr. Emergency Shelter. And Tulare County, Calif. has partnered with Adventist Health and United Farm Workers to deliver doses to rural agriculture workers. Dinner is served to those who come for a shot.
Internally, many county governments across the country are requiring that employees be vaccinated.
In an email sent to all employees, Vince Long, county administrator of Leon County, Fla.—the first county in the country to require vaccination, according to a news brief from NACo—explained the policy as “very simple and very serious. As an employer, we are required to provide a safe work environment for employees, and unvaccinated employees pose a significant risk to spread the virus,” Long wrote. “As an essential government agency, we are obligated to ensure our operational readiness to serve our community, and virus outbreaks among our workforce that could have been avoided pose a very real threat to our operational readiness.”
In total, about 52 percent of the U.S. population has been fully vaccinated, with 61 percent having received at least one dose, based on data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
But despite the ongoing vaccination efforts, infection rates are surging once again due to the delta variant. That’s prompting many states to reinstate masking requirements that lapsed over the summer. Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington—as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico—require everyone to wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status. California, Connecticut, Illinois and New York have indoor mask mandates only for the unvaccinated. On Friday, Oregon became the first state to reimpose its outdoor mask requirement.
With students returning to school this week, school districts, in particular, face an uncertain future.
“In reaction to delta-variant-fueled spikes in new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in most states, the federal CDC recommended in late July that all schools require students, teachers and visitors to wear masks,” according to an analysis from PEW Research.
So far, Washington, Oregon, California, Hawaii, Nevada, New Mexico, Louisiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Virginia, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts and the District of Columbia have mask requirements in schools, according to data from Burbio. At least 26 others have left it up to local jurisdictions. Five states—South Carolina, Iowa, Oklahoma, Arizona and Utah—have mask bans in place, and bans have been legally overturned in in Florida, Arkansas and Texas, all three of which are seeing a particularly sharp spike in coronavirus rates.
Of the nation’s top 200 school districts, 70 percent require masks and about half are offering some sort of virtual education option.
Through research, the CDC has made it clear that the data points to the effectiveness of vaccination and mask mandates as a protection against the coronavirus. A study of mask-wearing in Kansas conducted last year, for example, concluded that the 24 counties that mandated masks in public places the “increasing trend in COVID-19 incidence reversed.” Comparatively, “the 81 counties that opted out of the mask mandate continued to see increases in cases,” the CDC’s study says.