Summit County Public Health leader discusses the rural county’s coordinated response to COVID-19 pandemic

Utah’s Summit County Health Department (SCHD) released a report earlier this month that detailed its coordinated response during the pandemic. The establishment and mobilization of the county’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) early on was key to achieving positive results, according to SCHD Public Health Emergency Manager Chris Crowley who led local efforts.

 

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“From the onset, we took a very aggressive stance,” Crowley said. “On the very first day back in January of 2020, we adopted a [National Incident Management System Incident Command Structure] that allowed us to have a good compartmentalization of responsibilities and delivery. The complexity of planning and response and communication through that system allowed us to be very effective.” 

Crowley, who was an Olympic Organizing Committee member from previous Olympic Games, said his background of planning the major international sporting event helped coordinate the rural county’s response. 

“I applied the same planning principle we do with the Olympics where we have lots of organizations and lots of moving parts [where] everybody plans in their silo and then we integrate that and build a large and effective response effort from that,” Crowley said. “It’s an event-based planning structure that works for large events, and COVID is no different.”

SCHD outlined a detailed timeline of its response in relation to the peaks and valleys of the county’s case counts in its COVID-19 After-Action Report Executive Summary. Spanning the timeline from February 2020 to March 2022, the summary revealed a series of public health measures aimed at mitigating the spread of infection and later on vaccinations.

SCHD’s response plan was framed around the CDC’s Public Health Emergency Preparedness and Response guidance, which outlines 15 operational capabilities across 6 domains of public health preparedness: community resilience, incident management, information management, countermeasures and mitigation, surge management, and biosurveillance. 

The county reported 14,158 cases, 332 hospitalizations, and 26 deaths related to COVID-19 over that time period. The county’s vaccination rates for its population of nearly 43,000 stands at 90%, with rates for the adult and senior (65 years of age and older) populations at 94% and 107% (demand exceeds estimated population) respectively as of early November. 

On Wednesday, the Health and Human Services Interim Committee advanced a bill for the upcoming legislative session that would authorize a policy and governance review of public health departments. If passed, the legislation could affect how and how much funds are distributed to SCHD. 

Crowley said there was a high level of community support and volunteerism in its Medical Reserve Corps (MRC) that contributed to the success of measures like its drive-through screening and mass vaccination rollout. He added SCDH will be looking to build up its MRC capabilities and advocated for more resources. 

“People were committed but a lot of those volunteers were spontaneous,” Crowley said. “We had to focus a lot of our efforts on providing just-in-time training. Once you hit the ground, we train you and you start delivering. So we would like to build our MRC capacity and that’s something we’ve focused resources on and is going to be one of our priorities.

A second element is community outreach, especially into our vulnerable populations and non-English speaking populations. We know that we had challenges penetrating those populations and we want to make sure we do our best to increase not only the communication but the two-way communication and trust building.”

The report will be used to strengthen the department’s response capabilities for future outbreaks. With the busy ski season expected to draw large numbers of visitors to the county, Crowley hopes the department will avoid another winter surge but is confident it can respond if one occurs.