Fayette health official says ‘sometimes’ health departments would first hear of information during pandemic at governor briefings

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Fayette County Health Department Administrator Terri Harlan said there were times during the COVID-19 pandemic that you’d be able to hear curse words coming from her office as information from the state came in.

Why? Harlan said ‘sometimes’ in the past 15 months of media briefings by Gov. Jim Justice that the health department leaders across the state would hear announcements for the first time during the briefing, the same time as the public.

“It was really hard because our community was depending on us. They expected us to have that information and sometimes that is when we got the information. Not all the time,” Harlan said on Monday in Charleston while addressing the Joint Committee on Health during an interim committee meeting.

She was answering a question from Kanawha County Delegate Mike Pushkin regarding when health departments would receive information during the pandemic. He cited an incident in late December in his county where long lines formed outside the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department shortly after the governor announced vaccinations were available to the elderly population.

Harlan said she heard from local health leaders about the time period of the vaccination rollout in December and into January. The Herald-Dispatch detailed similar events in Cabell and Wayne counties.

“Unfortunately, a lot of times when the governor spoke at his news brief, that was the first time we were hearing that. We needed to be prepared to get that information out to our community or be prepared to address it when the community would come to us and say they heard this,” she said.

Following the first few months of COVID-19 vaccination distribution, the Mountain State became a leader in shot rates. The state also was one of the last states to record a positive test in March 2020 and held low virus rates.

Harlan credited preparation for the pandemic numbers coming out of the state early on in the pandemic.

“We knew it was coming, we started meeting. We started getting on the phone with one another, statewide. We started pulling together our local teams to discuss how we were going to address this,” she said of work last winter.

She said staying local was key during the pandemic. Harlan detailed a regional vaccination event early on in the process was not helpful to her county’s population, traveling long distances in the winter to get a shot.

Harlan said communities look to the health department for direction and guidance on most emergencies, including flooding and natural disasters. She also mentioned how while the health department was dealing with a pandemic, it also had to do its regular duties such as other immunizations and health checks for septic sewer systems, restaurants, water, schools, and maintain relationships in the community.

“It’s really important for us to have a local presence. This would have been very difficult to do on a regional level, to address and deal with this pandemic,” Harlan said.

Local health departments and their authority took center stage took the 2021 regular legislative session over Senate Bill 12. The bill to update the authority of local health departments, signed into law by Justice, now requires a public comment period on new or amended rules and requiring county commissions and other boards of health-appointing agencies to approve the rule before it is implemented.

Other topics discussed during the meeting Monday in the House Chamber included funding, core services, leadership, structure, staffing, and rules of health departments. Speakers included A.Jay Root, the Administrator of the Mineral County Health Department, Lee Smith, the Executive Director of the Monongalia County Health Department and Monongalia County Health Officer, Chad Bundy, the Executive Director of the Harrison County Health Department, and VJ Davis, the Administrator at the Preston County Health Department.

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