Following the passage of a invoice that checked the powers of county boards of well being this previous session, the West Virginia Legislature is finding out different methods the state’s public well being system ought to function.
Well being officers from throughout West Virginia offered to the Joint Committee on Well being Monday night, explaining how the system works and what enhancements they consider have to be made. The most important complaints had been about communication between county well being departments and the state, and, after all, funding.
There are 48 well being departments within the state tasked with selling public well being, imposing state well being legal guidelines and responding to public well being emergencies, just like the COVID-19 pandemic.
Of the 48 boards of well being, 24 have 4 or fewer workers. They’re tiny however mighty, officers mentioned Monday.
Mineral County, alongside the border of Maryland, is one in every of these small well being departments. A.Jay Root, administrator and preparedness/IT director of the Mineral County Well being Division, mentioned well being officers in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, and in Maryland — each with a lot bigger staffs and budgets — referred to as him for recommendation when the pandemic started, after which when the vaccine rollout started.
“They’d ask me how we did it, and we simply did,” Root mentioned. “It’s what all these folks do.”
Dr. Lee Smith, government director and well being officer on the Monongalia County Well being Division, mentioned West Virginia’s system helped the state dive head-first into vaccinating the general public. That is why the smaller departments had been doing higher than departments in different states with budgets the dimensions of West Virginia’s whole public well being funds, he mentioned. However the pandemic additionally revealed the failings within the system.
A small variety of enterprise homeowners have complained concerning the energy of the well being departments when the state handed the Clear Indoor Air Act, which allows county boards of well being to enact non-smoking ordinances for public areas. However in the course of the pandemic, particularly within the early phases and within the preliminary shutdown, many companies felt unfairly focused and confused by disjointed messages coming from departments across the state.
Senate Invoice 12 requires any rule set by county boards of well being to be authorised by the county fee and every other appointing authority after a public remark interval. For instance, guidelines set by the Cabell County Board of Well being will want approval by the Cabell County Fee and Huntington Metropolis Council, as they each have authority to nominate members to the board of well being. The appointing authorities can approve, disapprove and amend guidelines.
Whereas the brand new regulation might put some energy again within the palms of elected officers, it doesn’t do a lot to assist the guts of the difficulty in relation to public well being: an absence of infrastructure and funding.
All West Virginia well being officers meet weekly now on Zoom, a pandemic necessity turned everlasting after the worth was seen, mentioned Terri Harlan, administrator on the Fayette County Well being Division. However they nonetheless don’t have a option to simply share information and evaluation, and so they all function on completely different methods.
Communication can also lag from the state. The pandemic additionally highlighted that, significantly when Gov. Jim Justice would make an announcement throughout his video briefings and the well being departments would discover out one thing they wanted to do similtaneously the general public. Harlan mentioned there have been generally curse phrases heard from the again of her workplace when an announcement she wasn’t prepared for got here from the lips of the governor.
Funding additionally stays a difficulty, prohibiting methods from being up to date and different infrastructure enhancements. Smith, for instance, runs one of many largest well being departments within the state, but operates out of three buildings as a result of the division can’t discover the funds to construct a brand new house.
“You may’t get grants for brick and mortar,” he mentioned.
Delegate Matt Rohrbach, R-Cabell, requested if Smith believed regionalizing the well being departments could be the best way to go to get probably the most bang for the state’s bucks, however Smith mentioned it could rely on what that appeared like. He mentioned he strongly helps having a public well being presence in every county. It might work for hospital methods, however because of the preventative function of efficient public well being, it could not work greatest for well being departments.
The Joint Committee on Well being has a sub-committee working with the general public well being officers to discover a path ahead.
Reporter Taylor Caught might be reached at email@example.com. Comply with her on Twitter and Fb @TaylorStuckHD.