COVID isn’t over yet, but with critical hospitalizations and deaths remaining low despite increasing cases, the virus appears to have morphed into a form we can monitor and manage.
We are now beginning the slow recovery process of collectively picking ourselves up from the sustained shockwaves we have endured as a society over the past two years. For response agencies, this is also a time for reflection. We need to assess the damage inflicted by the spikes of this tiny virus, understand how and why it happened, and perform a meaningful “after-action” assessment of how well our healthcare and social safety systems performed in response to this cataclysmic stress test. COVID pushed our public health and healthcare systems to the limit. We want to know how well our systems performed and how we can do better in the future.
COVID hit us hard as individuals. Many of us have lost loved ones, been hospitalized, or are battling long-term, significant complications. This pandemic has had impacts that extend far beyond the direct effects of the illness itself. Childhood education and development have been disrupted. Our society’s pre-existing crisis of loneliness and isolation has worsened. Who amongst us doesn’t know someone who is experiencing divorce, anxiety, depression, burnout, substance abuse, fatigue, sleep disturbance, or economic challenges? There is evidence that the aging process itself has been accelerated by this pandemic, even in those few who have managed to dodge infection.
An effective response to a challenge as vast as the COVID-19 pandemic required intricate coordination between agencies and organizations at all levels – some working together for the first time. Local governments, tribes, hospitals, clinics, pharmacies, emergency medical services, long-term care facilities, law enforcement, transit, schools, news media, social services providers, grassroots organizations, and individual community members shouldered key roles in our response, alongside Kitsap Public Health and the Kitsap County Emergency Operations Center. Established relationships were leveraged. New partnerships were forged on the fly. Fresh lines of communication opened. In some areas, we enjoyed astonishing success, as when hundreds of volunteers and dozens of healthcare organizations worked hand in hand with public health to vaccinate 200,000 Kitsap residents in less than a year. In others, the virus exposed and exploited gaps and inequities in our systems, with devastating results.
As we pick up the pieces and begin our recovery, Kitsap Public Health District is leading an effort to assess response efforts in the healthcare and public health sectors to understand what went well and what needs to be improved. We are disseminating surveys through numerous response agencies and organizations and will be following up with key informant interviews, focus groups, and listening sessions. Feedback gathered through this outreach will be distilled into an after-action report and improvement plan.
While our after-action review focuses on public health and healthcare readiness, the lessons we learn will help lay the foundation for a comprehensive community health assessment, which will include key indicators and outcomes. We seek to fully understand the functionality of our healthcare continuum, the gaps through which our most vulnerable citizens may fall, and the disparities in health outcomes and access to complete health and social services across different demographic, socioeconomic, and geographic groups in Kitsap County. We intend to use this information to develop an action plan to achieve the health district’s mission.
This assessment is vital not only to prepare for the next potential emergency, but also to strengthen existing healthcare systems, identify and address gaps, and break down barriers blocking equitable access for Kitsap residents. This is an opportunity to create a healthier and more resilient community. We encourage all our response agencies to embrace this opportunity. The urgency generated by COVID-19 has proven an engine for innovation. COVID response was transformational event for KPHD and many of our partners. We want to capture that energy to fuel collaboration and create lasting, positive change in our community.
These are exciting times at the Kitsap Public Health District. We are actively working to eliminate barriers to top functioning public health and healthcare performance. Many of these barriers are beyond our control, such as healthcare reimbursement and insurance systems, but lessons we learn may help inform new policy initiatives at local, state, and perhaps even federal levels. We are proud of our efforts to embed our cross-cutting public health teams into traditional public health programs at the health district. Our communications, equity, performance management, preparedness, and epidemiology teams have been strengthened considerably by ongoing challenges throughout the pandemic and are helping to synergize performance of the organization.
We hope your input will help us achieve these goals. If you have thoughts or ideas regarding COVID response, you can reach us anytime at [email protected].
Dr. Gib Morrow is the health officer for Kitsap Public Health District.
This article originally appeared on Kitsap Sun: Looking back at Kitsap’s COVID response help strengthen health system