Jamie Bone, a Davis County Health Department registered nurse, prepares a syringe of Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at the Legacy Center Indoor Arena in Farmington on Jan. 12. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)
FARMINGTON — While the rest of the world seemed to experience feelings of isolation and loneliness as lockdowns and quarantines amid COVID-19 began to come in waves, Isa Perry felt almost the opposite.
“If you worked in public health you were never bored or lonely or isolated, and most of the time you were completely overwhelmed and overstimulated,” said Perry, health strategy manager at the Davis County Health Department. “I saw that and experienced that throughout almost the whole pandemic, of just not having the same experience that other people were because of the type of work that we were involved in.”
While many had moved away from office buildings and into work-from-home settings with an array of background noise, Perry and her team had expanded throughout the county facilities in Farmington. Soon, the buildings were filled with waves of phones ringing and the buzz of conversation as they were picked up.
Perry and the health department was prepared for a high volume of calls once COVID-19 vaccines began to arrive in Utah. Additional staff was quickly brought on to help manage the anticipated numbers.
“We were able to get some temporary election workers,” Perry said. “It was pretty miraculous and very brave and courageous of them, people with no public health background but who were willing to show up the next morning and start answering phones.”
The next morning was Jan. 15, shortly after vaccines began to roll out for adults 70 and older, the phone calls never seemed to stop — Davis County Health Department received over 14,000 calls that day. Perry said it was the first time the system had been tested to that capacity.
“In the beginning, a typical day your phone never stopped ringing, ever. It was kind of physically exhausting for our staff whose voices would get tired,” Perry said. “There was no breaks between calls. Most people just really wanted to get their vaccine and wanted to get it as soon as possible.”
The call center staff were able to schedule vaccination appointments, conduct outgoing follow-up calls for second doses, help reduce barriers for individuals without access to the website, and schedule homebound appointments.
The call center, from its creation to its current state, has marked the different stages throughout the pandemic.
“The call center, the volume and the type of calls have definitely changed over time,” Perry said. “We have far less calls to the call center right now and we have far less staff than we did in the beginning.”
Calls to the center recently have been centered on information regarding exposure when vaccinated and how to best protect people in your community, Perry added. The call center staff and community health workers have also heard all the myths and misinformation surrounding the vaccine.
“Misinformation has been a huge challenge. We really have a huge effort of vaccine outreach where we are there in communities giving vaccines, and that’s really where our community health workers who are able to form some trusted relationships with kind of our vulnerable populations or people who might have misinformation or concerns because of cultural reasons,” Perry said.
As the number of calls begins to decrease, Davis County Health Department is evaluating its next steps as it moves forward amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The next phase is kind of twofold. We’ve got increase COVID cases in the county that’s creating us to be quite overwhelmed and overloaded, and we are anticipating a pretty big amount of people would come back for their booster dose when the CDC announces that makes that final. And so we’re going to be reopening our mass vaccination clinic,” Trevor Warner, communications manager at Davis County Health Department said.
The county health department has reported high transmission for the COVID-19 virus on its website.
Monday, it reported 130 cases and a 137 cases-per-day average in the last week. Currently there are 52 hospitalizations, with the county’s intensive care unit bed usage almost reaching capacity at 95%. Davis County reported having 27 staffed adult ICU beds, 11 are filled by patients who do not have COVID-19 and 14 are filled by patients who do have the disease.
Mass vaccinations were available at the Legacy Center in Farmington from December 2020 to June 2021. It was a drive-thru clinic, allowing anyone to receive their vaccine. The clinic provided more than 222,000 doses but eventually closed its doors once the vaccine became more available through physicians and pharmacies.
“That was when we were in a time where we tend to put other health department duties and jobs kind of on the back burner and our focus was just getting as many people vaccinated as quickly as possible, and so we kind of had an all hands on deck mentality. But now, COVID can’t consume us all the time, and so we’ve got health department programs and jobs that have contracts and everything that need to be fulfilled,” Warner added.
The health department has a variety of open positions it’s looking to fill. Some of those positions are to staff and coordinate the reopening of the mass vaccination clinic, while others are to help the department move forward in its routine programs. Perry said managing COVID-19 among other duties can be a balancing act.
“Now that we’re getting ready to open the mass vaccination clinic again, that probably will take resources away from the outreach events, taking the vaccine to the people while we have a high volume of demand to come to our big vaccination clinics. So, that’s a balancing act. We are very committed to doing vaccine outreach; we’ve definitely seen the benefits and effectiveness of it. But there’ll be a point where we have to scale that back to do the mass effort,” Perry said.
The return of the mass vaccination clinic marks a narrowing of the light at the end of the tunnel for some.
“We had no idea how long the pandemic would last. And as it’s built and has kept going, I think it’s it’s been hard on our staff not necessarily seeing that light at the end of the tunnel,” said Dave Spence, deputy director of Davis County Health Department. “We saw a little bit of a light a couple of months ago when we closed down our mass vaccination clinic, but the cases have increased again and it’s hard to see the light at the end of that tunnel.”
Which is partially why the health department is making a push to hire more staff, Warner said.
“People are tired and they’re burnt out. Now that they’ve gotten this other huge lift and they’re seeing a surge of cases, and now having to do another vaccine administering clinic and everything like that, it’s a lot,” Warner said. “And I think that’s why we’re kind of getting out ahead of this. We see that there’s going to be a challenge to hire people.”
Perry, who can still hear the ringing of phones in her head, feels that burnout some days.
“It definitely feels like there’s no end in sight, and so that can be overwhelming to not know if the workload will ever become manageable or decrease,” Perry said. “It’s just kind of part of living in a western community though: the competing values of freedom and also protecting the greater good,” she said. “But from my angle, just the fact that we are continually making the vaccine accessible — and that every day more and more people are choosing to get vaccinated — that is still encouraging to me.”