Jackson County Marks 1 Year of Pandemic
March 17, 2021 - This week marks one year since COVID-19 upended lives in our region, prompting an immediate response from cooperating local officials as they moved to protect the health of their citizens. The CORE 4 governments (Kansas City, MO, Jackson County, Johnson County, and Wyandotte County/KCK) signed health orders limiting gatherings and closing all but essential businesses. As we learned more about the virus, public servants had to quickly adapt to the ever-changing environment, balancing concern for public health with economic fallout and the welfare of vulnerable populations. Jackson County’s associates stepped up to the plate, whether as in-person essential workers or adjusting to new technologies, working from home to keep the business of the County and the backbone of our community moving forward. Here are some accounts of how departments handled the year of the pandemic.
Jackson County Health Department
The Jackson County Health Department has been tracking COVID-19 since the end of 2019. In response to the emerging pandemic, the health department built an emergency incident command system, structured its staff to direct components of the response, and strategized about building health department capacity. The health department also had to scale their workforce quickly to meet these new demands. Despite the additional staff, almost all staff positions had to be diverted in some way to assist with coronavirus response efforts. This spans the spectrum from testing, case investigation and contact tracing, research and policy, and now vaccination.
The health department fortunately received CARES Act funds, passed through from the Jackson County Legislature, to address COVID-19 in Eastern Jackson County. Subsequently, the health department was one of the first in the metro to implement case and contact investigation software to efficiently scale operations. Through the dynamic ability of our staff, we were able to quickly transition based on immediate needs. The Jackson County Health Department staff have responded admirably to this crisis, working extended hours for months on end. Staff have been flexible in fulfilling different roles and being innovative in their approach to solving challenges.
Public health has generally operated in the background, as a preventative force contributing to a healthy and thriving community. As part of this work, epidemiological investigations have always occurred, oftentimes only known to the direct parties involved in the outbreaks. Only through this crisis has the public gotten a first-hand account of what goes on during these processes. Having a public health infrastructure in place before crises hit is crucial to an effective response.
This crisis has elevated what has been known for a while – that systemic structures that perpetuate poor health and inequity exist and persist, even in Jackson County. In order to ensure all people in our community have the same level of access to a quality life, everyone must be intentional about working across Jackson County to build a better place to live.
One department whose workload increased dramatically was the Environmental Health Department, which is tasked with food safety and health inspections of businesses including restaurants, bars, nursing homes, grocery stores, and schools. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the health department has received over 5000 complaints. They have had to investigate these complaints and issue warnings, tickets or closures as needed. They were also responsible for the review of 190 Aquatic Venue plans to safely open pools in 2020 and have just now started working on these plans for 2021. Gathering plans for over 475 events were also reviewed to allow for safe events in Eastern Jackson County.
The department’s first challenge happened during the stay-at-home order. Toilet paper was scarce and people began flushing products that were not soluble (baby wipes, rags, etc.) With everyone staying home, Jackson County’s wastewater plants had increased flow. The wipes and other products caused over $20,000 in repairs. The entire Environmental Health Department began going door to door, handing out fliers to educate people on what could be flushed.
Another big hurdle was encouraging establishments to require their customers to abide by the health orders. Department Director Deborah Sees noted that “Being able to understand the challenges and fear that our businesses were facing was an essential piece of the puzzle. How change is communicated to people can have a major impact on how well they embrace and adapt to it. In the wake of a continually changing situation, being able to communicate effectively is essential. We have learned how critical it was to form those relationships before a crisis. The businesses with whom we had an existing relationship with were much more receptive to the help and education we strive for.”
As a feature of the job, Environmental Health staff has significant public contact that can’t be avoided. To keep their vital mission going, the department had to adapt quickly to protect themselves and others, beginning with staggering staff in the office, and working from home when possible. Several staff members were exposed to the virus, a few contracted COVID-19, but they were fortunate that no one had serious complications. The department developed procedures to do virtual inspections at nursing homes, hospitals and other places that have highly susceptible populations.
As they do with food safety practices, Environmental Health staff took an educational approach to wearing masks and social distancing wherever they visited. On a few occasions, associates had to leave establishments and return when a sheriff deputy was available to escort them.
The department has always understood the importance of their role in food safety and other environmental activities to protect the citizens of Jackson County, but having a pandemic with health orders to enforce took their daily duties to an unprecedented level. Director Sees expressed, “I am extremely proud of how my staff has handled the last year. They accomplished so much and played a large role in keeping people safe during such an uncertain time. It was challenging trying to keep up with routine inspections. We were able to hit our minimum inspection numbers for the year the last week of December. Our staff worked as a team to ensure all inspections were completed on time. They worked incredibly hard to accomplish this.”
Jackson County Detention Center
The Jackson County Detention Center has been faced with the very difficult task of housing people, in relatively close quarters, throughout the pandemic. The consistent intake of people into the facility and limited availability to test new admits for COVID, especially early on, added to that difficulty.
The focus had to be placed on mitigating risk while limiting any disruption to the services the facility provides. Fortunately, the facility had already developed a plan for infectious or communicable disease prior to the pandemic. While additional changes needed to be made to fit the specific challenges that are unique to COVID-19, the basics were already in place to give the facility a good start.
Although the center would prefer to never have to put parts of it into practice again, it was encouraging that the plan seemed to help identify and implement needed changes quickly and effectively.
Because of the nature of the facility, there are limits to what can be changed inside while providing the necessary services to the population, so one area of focus was attempting to limit the opportunities for COVID-19 to enter the facility. The public entrance was closed to general traffic and an associate was posted at the door to control access and provide a screening, which included taking temperatures. The staff entrance was closed, and staff also entered through the screening prior to reporting to their workstations. Protective partitions were installed to reduce any potential spread from individuals entering to conduct necessary business.
The facility increased the use of technology, including video court and medical appointments when possible. The public was also encouraged to use electronic methods of conducting visits or other business typically done on site. The use of electronic and virtual methods was generally well received by the public and other departments and agencies involved in the services provided in the facility.
Although COVID-19 has been a significant challenge, the staff throughout the facility has risen to the occasion and the Detention Center continues to operate and successfully limit any outbreak. Staff has not only faced the physical threats of the pandemic, but also the potentially draining mental challenges of dealing with so much uncertainty. The Detention Center has been able to start offering Resiliency During COVID-19 training to help support staff as they continue to do excellent work. There were 79 employees with perfect attendance for at least one quarter and six employees had perfect attendance throughout 2020, including Rafiu Abdulsalam, Akpofure Ogaga, Okwuchukwu Odinigwe, Nebolisa Anyabolu, John Kraly, and Mercy Ndum.
The facility entrance has been retrofitted with the ability to contact the Visitation desk and a temperature screening device, which is more sustainable than a posted officer in the long run. The facility will continue to encourage the use of video and other technology to reduce traffic in and out of the building, especially when it is a more convenient option for all parties, even post-COVID.
The Jackson County Sheriff’s Office is one of the departments that has been on the front lines since the start of the pandemic and has been affected in many ways. Unfamiliar equipment and new measures are being utilized such as the use of PPE and social distancing as well as new levels of sanitation.
Some services were scaled back and a lot of in-person business was postponed including the processing of Conceal Carry Permits and lobby access was not allowed. This led to a few incidents of people being upset because they couldn’t renew their permits, but the biggest issue for the Office was having to wait until given the green light to open the building to the public.
Deputies have also been faced with members of the public who were constantly trying to convince them that the virus was not real. They maintain their professional stance to obey all the guidelines put in place to keep everyone safe.
Several associates have tested positive which increased the duties of others who needed to cover for them.
Public Information Officer LaVanden Darks said that everyone has gone above and beyond with their involvement in trying to contain COVID and prevent its spread.
“However, our groundskeeper and maintenance specialist Phil Quilico has been stellar in making sure our facilities stay as clean as possible, even sometimes cleaning them after hours,” Darks said. “Not to mention that he himself had contracted COVID early on. After his quarantine period he hit the ground running and never looked back, doing everything he could to keep the rest of us from it around headquarters and beyond.”
“Overall, we remained efficient in our ability to serve our communities and although COVID-19 has changed a lot of the ways that we operate, it has not changed our devotion to fulfilling our obligations to the citizens of Jackson County,” Darks said.
The Information Technology department had to overcome many obstacles in the past year, the main one working out how they were to go from being a hands-on department that is mostly public facing, to being almost completely remote. The department is one that supports everyone else in the County, so the changes had to be made quickly and efficiently to ensure a seamless turnover for everyone.
IT set the tone for the rest of the County associates when they started working remotely and implemented many of their own new processes and procedures into the other departments that they support. They worked with team members from all departments to aid in these transitions and were a big help in getting the staff comfortable with using new programs such as Teams and Zoom. The priority for them has been and will continue to be about keeping their staff safe, even if that means putting in some extra work.
When asked if anyone’s work has stood out over the past year, many in the department sing the praises of the Network Support Staff as a whole. They are the frontline of support countywide, meaning they are interfacing with all associates daily to ensure smooth operations while keeping networks up and running.
Donald Rankins has been commended by the department for taking on a significant workload since the start of the pandemic. His peers and superiors say he has shown outstanding work ethic and has been working from the courthouse the whole time, doing whatever is necessary to keep all departments successfully running.
Other departments throughout the County have credited the IT department for much of their success over this past year. Associates describe how they made remote collaboration an easy process, and many of the procedures that IT put into place for these departments are going so well that they will continue to be used post COVID-19. IT will also continue to use some of their new procedures following the pandemic. While it was a tedious and sometimes difficult process at the start, they think adjusting their schedules and work locations has presented various benefits that allow for better customer service.
Last March, the Facilities Management staff was already quite busy with several projects in the County. In the Kansas City Courthouse, the upper floor renovations, basement repairs, and elevator upgrades that were ongoing from the 2019 building flood all continued during the lockdown. However, progress was delayed due to issues getting construction materials, as supply chains related to nearly everything were disrupted globally.
Facilities began preparing as soon as the virus began to spread in Jackson County, ordering up extra supplies of disinfectants in the first week of March. Facilities had an onsite presence 100% of the time during the lockdown. There was a member of every trade, (plumbers, carpenters, electricians, operating engineers, and painters) on staff during normal business hours. Custodial staff also reported to County facilities on a limited basis during the lockdown. Courts remained in the building with a greatly reduced presence, and staff made sure their work areas were disinfected.
The greater task for facilities was re-opening Jackson County’s facilities to associates and the public with increased need for safe and sanitized work spaces. Every year, people pass flu, colds and other illnesses through close contact with coworkers. The Facilities team assumed that COVID would be similar but exponentially harder to contain due to the population not having any immunity to the virus. Armed with PPE provided by Jackson County such as high quality masks, full body suits, gloves, and cleaning supplies, the staff developed a schedule and a plan for more robust and routine disinfecting of high traffic areas such as elevators, restrooms, entry and exit points, and waiting areas.
Before re-opening, the County did invest in a “deep clean” procedure from local cleaning company Burtin & Associates that disinfected all three courthouses and the Albert Riederer Community Justice Center. As the associates and public returned to the buildings, there were occasions when the staff needed to enter work areas where active virus transmission had occurred. The County also invested in an electrostatic sprayer to disperse cleaning agents more efficiently and evenly. Thanks to their supply of PPE and willingness to serve, they were able to sanitize the areas and allow normal business to resume.
The staff showed resilience and adaptability as guidelines and procedures evolved throughout the year. Facilities Management Administrator Rick Gerla stated that “I’m definitely proud of our Facilities team. They were always open to the challenges that were presented to them, as long as we went about it safely and with a strategic plan so that we could see a common goal towards the end, of keeping people safe and healthy.”
At the start of COVID-19, Human Resources had to quickly adapt to being out of office in an effort to keep all County associates safe and healthy. The department has long been paper driven, so this change was an adjustment, but with the creation of electronic forms and the implementation of new online approval processes, the department thrived through the difficult time. They will continue to improve the online paperwork processes and work towards a less paper driven environment post-COVID-19.
When asked about specific individuals and their work, Human Resources Director Michelle Chrisman said, “All my staff adapted to the changes and procedures efficiently - I am very proud of all of them.”
The department as a whole proudly gave a lot of credit to Chrisman for her research, drafting, reviewing, and finalizing of changes to procedures, such as a new COVID-19 Sick Leave policy, that affected all departments. Many iterations of these procedures had to be drafted and tested, meaning the team put in countless hours to ensure the best plan was being put in place.
COVID-19 was and still is a moving target, which has required the department to stay nimble and courageous throughout this process. Countywide confusion was minimized significantly thanks to the effort put in by team members to stay on top of daily updates from the Health Department, the CDC, and various other organizations.
Many Human Resources associates credit Chrisman with much of the heavy lifting and say she continuously aided in a smoother focus for all during the pandemic.
Jackson County Parks + Rec facilities were one of the few destinations that remained open at the start of the pandemic, which caused a remarkable increase in the number of visitors to the parks.
“Families found our parks to be outdoor safe-havens for their mental and physical well-being,” said Joe Piccinini, Superintendent of Park Safety. “The increased usage was for all types of outdoor recreation, from walkers and bikers on the trails, to fishermen at our lakes and families coming out to just enjoy nature. The number of new boaters on the lakes also increased dramatically.”
The added usage of parks and facilities created new challenges in certain areas of the park system, with new patrons not yet aware of safety requirements.
For example, Park Rangers saw a significant rise in people trying to swim in no swimming areas across all the lakes. In every case, our Rangers stepped up to educate and instruct patrons on the safe use of our parks, including social distancing and face coverings requirements. Patron education efforts also included instruction on proper permitting and operation of boats and the use of personal floatation devices.
“Being a first responder during the pandemic, the stress of possibly becoming exposed or infected, ongoing contact tracing, educating and counseling associates, getting tested and the fear of losing a loved one were all factors that became a part of our daily lives,” Piccinini said.
Internal communications also became more challenging due to the need to reduce and eliminate in-person meetings. Both pre-shift meetings and post-shift meetings are now held outside or in separate vehicles. Shifts are now staggered to reduce cross contamination, creating more requirements for good remote communications. Day-to- day communicating with park patrons, through a mask while six feet apart, proved challenging as well. Rangers were redirected for eight-hour shifts at high use park facilities such as the marinas, sport complexes and Registration area, to educate park patrons on new COVID protocols. This additional Ranger staffing was required, while maintaining routine park safety and security.
He said, “Our workload has increased as Rangers have had to handle the additional responsibilities of educating park patrons on new COVID protocols, while still carrying out our daily responsibilities.”
According to Piccinini, attendance at Christmas In The Park also increased dramatically by 20,000 visitors. The increase created extreme traffic challenges. Rangers developed solutions and worked with outside law enforcement agencies as well as public works to handle the added vehicle traffic at Christmas In The Park.
Captain Mark Houston was a standout in this process as he exercised outstanding judgement and worked with park operations, public works, and outside law enforcement agencies to keep park operations running as safe as possible during COVID. He spent time, outside of his normal hours and days off, to assist with making sure park staff and patrons were as safe as possible. Captain Houston took a leadership role in dealing with the large increase in traffic at Christmas In The Park. He identified the traffic pattern issues and he worked with Public Works to institute traffic messages on electronic billboards. Additionally, he worked with outside law enforcement agencies to direct traffic at intersections in their jurisdictions. Finally, he scheduled, managed, and supervised the Rangers at Christmas In The Park to make sure park patrons enjoyed a safe and secure event.
“The entire Ranger staff met each and every challenge of the pandemic,” he said.
Keeping positive relations with the public has been a top priority, but often difficult, because many park patrons were disappointed that special events and activities were cancelled.
Piccinini said, “As Rangers, we did our best to let people know these changes were for their safety and ours, and that the Parks Department intended to resume these programs as soon as Health Orders would allow. Most of our patrons came to realize that spending time in our parks was one of the best things they could do during the pandemic and we witnessed a large increase in all aspects of park operations.”