They serve as three of the most front-facing agencies of Chatham County’s government that interact with thousands of residents every week. But now, the Chatham County Department of Social Services, Public Health Department and Council on Aging are being forced to adjust their procedures and still provide services, despite restrictions placed on them by the spread of COVID-19, or the novel coronavirus.
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PITTSBORO — They serve as three of the most front-facing agencies of Chatham County’s government that interact with thousands of residents every week.
But now, the Chatham County Department of Social Services, Public Health Department and Council on Aging are being forced to adjust their procedures and still provide services, despite restrictions placed on them by the spread of COVID-19, or the novel coronavirus.
“It definitely has been strange,” said Jennie Kristiansen, director of Chatham DSS. “Every day we’ve made modifications to how we’re doing business, recognizing that we need to be really proactive in reducing our community’s risk. The reason people come to DSS is because they need help, and we are here to provide that help. We’re working on ways to connect and serve people while minimizing the amount of face to face contact.”
DSS normally serves approximately 1,000 clients each month with Medicaid applications, food and nutrition services and other programs like the foster and adoption systems. To help cope with the needs still out there, Kristiansen said her department has tried to step up phone service and keeping her employees available by phone much more, while reminding people of the option to email or snail mail applications and other paperwork.
The department has also set up a table in front of the DSS building on Camp Drive in Pittsboro for people to pick up and submit applications, and there’s also a dropbox available. Last Monday, March 16, more than 50 people stopped by.
“We do have staff out in front of our office, but we’re really trying to limit the number of people coming in to reduce everyone’s risk,” Kristiansen said. “(We’re) really trying to keep people physically out of our waiting area.”
Across the street and across the county, the Council on Aging has scaled back its operations at its Pittsboro and Siler City locations, something that Executive Director Dennis Streets said was devastating.
“The first thing is that we’ve remained focused,” he said. “It’s been heartbreaking that we haven’t been able to have those who are regular participants in our two centers.”
The COA served an average of 1,334 congregate meals and 1,340 home meals per month during 2019, according to an organization report, along with hosting more than 40,000 exercise and fitness opportunities for its participants throughout the year. To counter that all being canceled, at least the in-person options, the organization has been delivering food to Meals on Wheels participants, working to the N.C. Diaper Bank on incontinence supplies and storing shelf-stable food with the county’s Emergency Management Department.
Streets said the agency is still doing medical rides and encouraging those who “don’t need to go” to not “so that the health practitioner can deal with what they need to be dealing with.” Additionally, the COA’s Facebook page has hosted virtual workout videos to try to makeup for those in-person events being canceled. An hour-long workout video on Monday morning with East Chatham Senior Center Fitness/Wellness Specialist Jackie Green had nearly 400 views just four hours after it started.
Other types of interaction that utilize technology, like FaceTime and video conferencing, are ways Streets say can help with one of the larger challenges that seniors in Chatham are facing.
“So many of our folks live alone,” Streets said. “Social distancing, social isolation is what’s really worrisome. We asked (participants) if they wanted a call each day or how often, and we’re meeting that with our staff and then we have a friendly caller volunteer group.”
The Chatham County Public Health Department is on the front lines of the COVID-19 response in the county, but Public Health Director Layton Long says the department has still been able to perform most of its usual responsibilities. The department sees around 150 people in its clinic per week, Long said.
“We have been able to keep most of our services running despite the demands and challenges posed by COVID-19,” Long said. “However, we have made some changes to continue to serve the public while reducing face-to-face contact and practicing social distancing.”
Among actions: asking individuals to drop off vital records like death certificates instead of face-to-face interactions; postponement of inspections of long-term care facilities and childcare centers; and not conducting asthma home trigger assessments or lead investigations. The department, Long said, has still taken efforts to still provide guidance and resources to those who ask for them in these areas while minimizing personal contact.
But COVID-19 is, perhaps understandably, taking up a lot of time.
“COVID-19 has certainly had a large impact on our day-to-day efforts, with staff from across all divisions being pulled into response efforts,” Long said. “Preparing for and responding to public health emergencies is a critical function of local public health. While COVID-19 is of a magnitude that we have not seen, we have been working with our partners and staff to prepare as best we can for a long time.”
Reporter Zachary Horner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @ZachHornerCNR.