How state, local health departments have changed operations, 3 years after Michigan’s first COVID-19 cases

This is a recording of the TV6 Early News.
Published: Mar. 10, 2023 at 6:27 AM EST
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HOUGHTON, Mich. (WLUC) - Like most industries, there are new challenges and opportunities facing public health, three years after Michigan’s first COVID-19 cases were confirmed.

You will probably remember how hard it was to find coronavirus testing when the COVID-19 pandemic started, and the turnaround for results was very slow.

One of the reasons was a lack of places to process samples.

“The main eye opener when COVID hit was we had no lab capacity whatsoever in our region,” said Kate Beer, Western U.P. Health Department Health Officer.

The state health department turned to local agencies, like the Western U.P. Health Department. A temporary setup to process tests has turned into a permanent lab.

“The state did have extra monies to begin starting up some regional labs so they approached us with the offer to assist us with not only funding the equipment for the lab but helping with some staffing costs until we can get the lab up and running,” said Beer.

The Western Upper Peninsula Regional Public Health Lab started processing COVID samples in September 2021.

“Since then, we’ve added additional equipment to the lab with the hopes that we can run different kind of tasks so that we can become sustainable over the course of the next few years,” said Beer.

Beer says the lab has three full-time staff members right now, and the state has invested about $2 million into this project. Now the lab can help with other badly needed work in the region, like drug testing for the 97th District Court. More testing expansion is in the works.

“We’re working right now with the state to make sure that we have the right kind of testing online to be able to support the public health departments here in the U.P. with STI, sexually transmitted infection testing, those kinds of things,” said Beer. “We also are putting online a piece of equipment that will be doing Lyme disease testing.”

In addition to the new regional labs, the state health department has hired more staff.

“With COVID specific money like I think we hired more than 145 staff through Michigan Public Health Institute specifically to work on COVID,” said Dr. Sarah Lyon-Callo, interim senior deputy director of Michigan’s Public Health Administration. “For example, we had a flex unit with people that could do many different kinds of epidemiologic tasks. So it might be case investigation. It might be contact tracing.”

That team has helped in cases outside of COVID, like with an Ebola outbreak and the state’s mpox response.

As far as other changes in the coming months, the state health department has goals outlined.

“We’re certainly concerned about some of the preventative screenings and preventative vaccinations that dropped off during the pandemic,” said Dr. Lyon-Callo. “When you look at the data about where are we with childhood immunizations, there’s a lot of effort to increase those rates. I think if you look at the FY24 budget, you’ll see that there’s a lot of attention to things like healthy babies, healthy moms. Also some initiatives around suicide prevention.”

For the Marquette County Health Department, this year is about getting back to a strategic plan approved in November 2019. The department’s health officer says the plan sat on the shelf for three years.

“There’s actually seven priorities in our strategic plan,” said Jerry Messana. “Some we’re going to work on immediately, some not. Funding is one of the big ones. Communications and marketing and outreach is another one. Those are kind of two of the big ones and then and then governance. Those are the three that will probably get off the ground relatively soon.”

Messana says extra COVID-related money the department was receiving during the pandemic’s peak has been winding down. As far as COVID-19 goes, Messana’s department continues to help long-term care facilities when outbreaks happen.