Summit County Public Health Leader Discusses Rural County’s Coordinated Response to COVID-19 Pandemic – State of Reform

Utah’s Summit County Health Department (SCHD) released a report earlier this month detailing the coordinated response during the pandemic. Establishing and mobilizing the county’s emergency operations center (EOC) early on was key to achieving positive outcomes, according to SCHD Public Health Emergency Manager Chris Crowley, who led the local effort.

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“From the beginning, we took a very aggressive stance,” Crowley said. “As early as the first day in January 2020, we adopted a [National Incident Management System Incident Command Structure] this allowed us to have a good division of responsibilities and execution. The complexity of planning and responding and communicating through this system allowed us to be very efficient.”

Crowley, who has been a member of the Olympic Organizing Committee from previous Olympics, said his experience in planning for the major international sporting event helped coordinate the rural county’s response.

“I applied the same principle of planning that we do with the Olympics, where we have many organizations and many moving parts [where] everyone plans in their silo and then we integrate that and build a large and effective response effort out of 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 to the peaks and troughs in the county’s caseload in its Summary of the report after the impact of COVID-19. 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 vaccinations.

The SCHD response plan was shaped around CDC Public Health Emergency Preparedness and Response guidelines that outline 15 operational capabilities in 6 areas of public health preparedness: community resilience, incident management, information management, response and mitigation, surge management, and biosurveillance.

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

On Wednesday, Interim Committee on Health and Human Services advance account for the upcoming legislative session, which will authorize a review of public health department policy and management. If passed, the legislation could affect how and how much funds are allocated to SCHD.

Crowley said there was a high level of community support and volunteerism in his Medical Reserve Corps (MRC), which had contributed to the success of measures such as his drive-through screening and mass vaccination. He added that SCDH would look to build 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’re on the ground, we train you and you start delivering. So we would like to build our MRC capacity and that is something that we have focused resources on and will be one of our priorities.

The second element is community outreach, particularly among our vulnerable populations and non-English speaking populations. We know we’ve had challenges penetrating these populations, and we want to make sure we’re doing everything we can to increase not only communication, but two-way communication and building trust.

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

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