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Public health still fighting misinformation

If a pandemic has highlighted anything, it may be the importance of making sure everyone’s on the same page. But with information on COVID-19 often updating at a breakneck pace, some information is bound to get lost in the shuffle.

After weeks of reading bits and pieces of misinformation, often spread through word of mouth and social media, Webster County Public Health Director Kari Prescott wants to clear the air on facts surrounding how public health is dealing with the highly-contagious respiratory illness in an environment that has become charged.

“This is politically charged, emotionally charged, economically charged–everybody has an opinion and everyone has a fear,” Prescott said. “We try to be the voice of reason and the voice of accurate data.”

But to do that, she said the public needs to know what public health actually does during an unusually busy season with no end in sight.

Here are just a few things from the exhaustive list of what Webster County Public Health (WCPH) has done:

• Established a public health network with six neighboring counties to monitor activity, mass testing information and concerns across county lines in Buena Vista, Calhoun, Hamilton, Humboldt, Pocahontas and Sac counties.

• Formed a targeted testing team across the region to implement large testing efforts to stop COVID-19 in its tracks at essential businesses and nursing homes.

• Made daily contact with clinics around the county.

• Made regular contact with city leaders, county leaders and leaders of large and small businesses to provide guidance with frequently changing public health orders from Gov. Kim Reynolds.

• Established daily public health meetings to get all county stakeholders on the same page with breaking and ongoing situations.

• Contact tracing for all positive patients.

• Provided trained staff assistance to other counties in need across rural northwestern Iowa.

• Provided testing since March.

“This is a health care crisis, it should not be in the political world,” Prescott said. “We should be able to take care of people affected by this.”

In spite of rumors that persist, they continue to do their jobs in the type of worst case scenario they’ve drilled and written policies for.

Some of the most damaging information, they say, includes the idea that public health is withholding information.

“We provide the information we’re able to, and that we would normally provide given HIPAA laws,” said Kelli Bloomquist, public information officer.

Another thing they say is untrue is the low availability of testing. Though criteria to be tested for COVID-19 at the beginning of the pandemic was stricter, with test kits in limited supply throughout the state, guidelines have since relaxed and health care providers are free to test any patient at their discretion.

Stressing the importance of testing, public health officials also acknowledged the limited scope of a test result.

“A COVID-19 test is a snapshot in time. It tells us if you have the virus in your system today,” Prescott said. “It doesn’t provide immunity or stop the onset of symptoms at a later date.”

The onset of symptoms, from the point of exposure, can take two to 14 days to manifest. About 60% of those infected will show mild symptoms, 20% will show no symptoms at all and 20% will develop severe symptoms placing them at risk of dying, according to Dr. Megan Srinivas, infectious disease specialist and physician at Community Health Center of fort Dodge.

And as new waves of businesses continue to reopen, even at limited capacity, WCPH anticipates they’ll continue to get busier. They simply ask for the public’s patience–accurate data takes time to compile and communicate, even through social media.

“We hope people trust us to do our jobs that we’ve drilled for and have policies for,” Prescott said.

Those policies have been tested through SARS, H1N1 and other public health scares that proved to be less potent to the broader public.

“Our numbers might increase, but our goal is to keep our community as healthy and safe as feasibly possible,” she said.

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