Local Health Depts. Scramble For Plans As Holcomb Depends On Local Control Of Large Events

Aug 17, 2020

Large gatherings, like new student orientation and Welcome Week, have a different feel amid the global COVID-19 pandemic. (Brock Turner, WFIU/WTIU News)

Students who already gave up prom, graduation, and summer vacations are beginning their college experiences differently.

But that’s the least of worries for the health officials tasked with keeping them safe.

Many local health departments charged with restricting the size of large gatherings are unclear exactly how they will enforce directives from Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb.

“Even in-person events that might not be 5,000, but in the past might have been a hundred, we have to rethink those things,” Indiana University Director of First-Year Programs Melanie Payne said. “The purpose hasn’t changed. Welcome Week—we’ve rebranded to Weeks of Welcome—to adjust to the situation.”

Those adjustments include self-guided tours and many alternate events via the IU first-year experience app.

Nearly all of the team’s plan for first-year students have been re-written and are constantly changing.

“A few months ago, we were thinking ‘Ok, let’s plan for in-person and virtual just in case,’” she said. “We were moving forward with even some of our bigger events trying to figure out how to do them still in a safe environment.”

Now, many of those plans are on hold.  

While Payne is hopeful some in-person events can be scheduled for new students, she’s not making any promises. 

She continues to follow and exceed guidance from the university and public health officials.

Payne and others planning large events across the state are experiencing a patchwork of regulations that vary from county to county. 

“We have 92 counties in Indiana and you can find 92 different ways of doing the same thing,” Penny Caudill, the Monroe County Health Department’s Administrator said.

Health Departments Had Little Time To Prepare Plans

Caudill and many of her colleagues were caught off guard when Holcomb announced local health departments would be tasked with approving gatherings of more than 250 people—a role well outside of the usual responsibilities for local health departments in Indiana.

To make matters worse, departments had little time to prepare.

“We knew about that when it got announced on television,” Henry County Health Department Administrator, Angela Cox said. “There was no preemptive email. There was no inquiry as to, ‘Hey, do you all think you can handle this?’

No local health officials interviewed for this story received information on these directives before the Governor announced them on July 15. That’s something the State Health Commissioner, Dr. Kristina Box and the Governor flatly denied.

“It shouldn’t have caught anyone off guard,” Holcomb said, looking at Box. “We’ve been sharing this information.”

To which Box replied, “We [ISDH] have weekly webinars to discuss this, and share this information.” While the statement is true, health officials say this was never mentioned in a webinar before the public announcement.

Box continued, “We [the state] have gone through some of those plans with some of those local health departments.”

But Box conceded that local health departments are likely overwhelmed. “To say that they’re not overburdened, I think everybody in public health is pretty overburdened, and in general in government, so I’m not surprised.”

Studies show Indiana health departments are some of the least funded in the nation. Many have experienced their staffs diminish in recent years.

Others rely on grants which limit the type of work their employees can complete.

In addition to  a department’s normal responsibilities, Indiana local health departments have been tasked with overseeing all large events in their communities, supplementing the state’s contact tracing efforts and advising school districts’ reopening plans.

Local health officials say they do not have the resources, staff, or experience to properly police these events. Many have been forced to hire part-time staff to simply keep up with their normal workloads.

For Cox, the decision to run the Indianapolis 500 without fans spoke volumes.

“I would like to have a little bit of backing from the state, the governor’s office,” she admits. “If we can’t even have 25 percent of the fans in the stands with the company that absolutely has the money to make safety happen then I think us at the local level really shouldn’t be in the position to make that decision.”

Cox says the leaving the decision up to local departments is, “not fair.” 

However, she doesn’t have time to worry about what could be. While she and many of her peers in local health departments across Indiana wish Holcomb would provide more guidance, they’re focusing on the task at hand—one that is the most taxing of their careers.

“I’m going to lose sleep,” Cox admits. “I will lose sleep every time I have an event because then I'm going to worry for the next two weeks. Am I going to have an outbreak related to that event?”

Her colleagues agree. None of the health officials interviewed said they would attend a large gathering themselves, but all are trying to find ways to accommodate them.

The governor has routinely cited home rule and local control as a reason for his office’s lack of guidance throughout the pandemic.

Yet, many of the local officials who are receiving that control wish state policymakers would take  some of it back.