A rural county’s response to a global pandemic

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By Sue Grafstrom, CRPD board member

How does a small rural community respond to a global pandemic?

My name is Sue Grafstrom, and that’s the question I have to answer. For the past two years I have been concurrently the Roseau County Emergency Manager and the Minnesota Department of Health’s Public Health Preparedness Consultant for northwest Minnesota, a region that covers twelve counties and three tribes. Two different jobs, two separate state agencies, one position working locally and the other position consulting regionally. 

Locally, I spend my time as Emergency Management Director, helping Roseau County prepare for, respond to and recover from emergencies and disasters.  In 2019, that meant coordinating a federal disaster declaration in the spring and a state disaster declaration in the fall, both due to flooding.

Regionally, as a Public Health Preparedness Consultant, I work with county and tribal public health departments, helping them plan how they will prepare for and respond to activities for incidents affecting public health.  With funding from the Centers for Disease Control, we work on building and maintaining our capacity to respond to events ranging from anthrax poisoning to an influenza pandemic. For the past few years, our activities have been centered around planning a major practice exercise for June 17, 2020, when we would have been testing our plans for mobilizing a Point of Dispensing, or POD, location.  The goal of this POD exercise was to practice distributing antibiotics to the entire population of a county in response to a hypothetical targeted attack involving anthrax poisoning. This exercise is on hold now.

I had no formal training for either of these emergency preparedness positions when I first started, except for a recently acquired master’s in public health.  Going through emergency management training and attending multiple public health emergency preparedness trainings, though, quickly revealed that Roseau and the other counties in northwest Minnesota operate with the bare necessities of resources.  Even the smallest of incidents could have the potential to overwhelm Roseau County’s four county volunteer fire departments, two volunteer ambulance services and one hospital and clinic system.  However, multiple natural and manmade disasters have disrupted life in northwestern Minnesota over the past 25 years, and each time ingenuity, creativity and strong local and regional partnerships have more than compensated for the limited resources available.

But now COVID-19 is here, a pandemic on a global scale not seen since the Spanish Flu in 1918. In even the best of times, rural Minnesota’s health care providers struggle to keep up with demand from residents for services.  And suddenly, we hear that the largest metropolitan areas in Minnesota are concerned about “surges” of patients overwhelming their hospitals, their specialized care units, their emergency rooms.  If the counties of Hennepin, Ramsey and Olmsted, which have the state’s highest number of intensive care unit beds and largest number of primary care physicians per capita, are fearful of being overwhelmed, where does that leave rural counties? 

COVID-19 is a challenging and unnerving possibility to prepare for, but I believe northwest Minnesota will respond to the pandemic as it has responded to other disasters, with ingenuity, creativity and partnership.

A recent article in the Grand Forks Herald entitled “With low numbers of ventilators in North Dakota, medical officials worry about resources” articulated my confidence in the residents of Roseau County and northwest Minnesota when the author, Brad Gibbens, deputy director of the University of North Dakota’s Rural Health Center, said, “Health care workers know they’ve been struck by rising cases, and knowing there is a potential explosion of them, they might not be sure exactly how they’ll get through it yet. But they are convinced they’ll get the job done.” 

COVID-19 has yet to take a foothold in northwest Minnesota, but when it does, it will be met by a resilient population—resilient people tested by previous storms, invested in ensuring that their community and the communities around them will weather this storm, too.