Thursday, January 2, 2014

Did You Call?

Did you try to call or visit the Mid-Michigan District Health Department during the Holidays only to find out that we were closed?  Yes, we were closed the entire week between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day—primarily to save money. But we were also very busy.  Protecting the health of the public health is a 24/7 operation.  

No sooner had staff gone home for the weekend before Christmas Eve when ice storm warnings were posted for much of Michigan. During the evening of Saturday, December 21st, freezing rain began falling in a swath that cut through Mid-Michigan, including Clinton County.  Many trees (some of them beloved, like the huge Locust in my back yard) collapsed or disintegrated under the weight of the ice, shredding power lines.  The area affected was so large that it would take a week to restore power for many people-- a week during which the temperature dropped into the teens many nights. Ultimately, over half a million homes and businesses would lose power (14,000 in Clinton County) and at least seven deaths would result.  Instead of having a long vacation, staff would be working long hours dealing with the public health consequences of this event. 
Public health has three main roles in an ice storm that includes power outages:

1.      Ensure that restaurants understand how to handle frozen and refrigerated food when the power goes off, and make sure unsafe food is not sold or fed to the public.

2.      Provide the public with information about the health risks of prolonged power outages.  These include food issues, but also the cold itself, and the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning that occurs when people affected by the storm use generators, wood stoves and other open-flame heaters incorrectly.

3.      Consult with emergency managers and first responders if shelters are being established to ensure that the food and water supply is safe.  
On the morning of the 22nd as the scope of the damage became clear, Larry St. George, the Emergency Management Coordinator at Clinton County, asked first responders to be prepared for activation of the Emergency Operations Center (EOC).  He activated it the next morning and staff reported promptly.  Because the power was out at the EOC’s primary location, we had to use the backup at the Sherriff’s office.  Our main goals were to get shelters established and also provide some support for power crews working in the frigid conditions.  Shelters were established in Bath, DeWitt, Maple Rapids and Ovid. Health Department staff who responded to this event included our Medical Director, Public Information Officer, the Director of Environmental Health and Sanitarians.

In spite of our efforts, one person did die in Clinton County. The death was due to carbon monoxide poisoning resulting from the unsafe use of a generator.  It wasn’t a merry Christmas in Clinton County. Only half the affected homes had power by the 26th.
Disease did not take a vacation during that week either, meaning our nurses also kept busy.  On the 31st we got a call from a regional hospital about a patient seen at an emergency room with symptoms and test results compatible with bacterial meningitis. The challenge for us was to determine if we were dealing with an infectious case and if so how to respond.  Our Medical Director, Dr. Graham, ultimately determined the symptoms were the result of an infection from a surgical procedure and that we did not need to prophylax people exposed to the patient. We also had other more routine public health events that kept our team hopping:  dog bites, influenza and gastrointestinal outbreaks in nursing homes, etc.

So if you tried to call or visit us, I’m sorry we missed you. But please remember, we were working hard every day of the break to make sure you and the ones you love are healthy!