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PHD: Fighting the good fight

by MADISON HARDY
Staff Writer | December 17, 2020 1:00 AM

Commissioner Bill Brooks' meeting with Panhandle Health District leadership Wednesday morning wasn't about business.

It was about giving thanks.

Since the pandemic hit Idaho's five northernmost counties in March, Panhandle Health District has served as a community guide. Before COVID-19, though, PHD did its thing quietly and often obscurely.

"The component of public health is very necessary for any community, and when it is working well, it's seamless, invisible," Panhandle Health District Director Lora Whalen said. "A lot of people don't notice unless they need our services. We make sure people have water, their septic tank is working, and that child care facilities and restaurants are being safe."

Added to its responsibilities is COVID-19. In tow came an informational hotline, mask mandates, enlisting the U.S. National Guard, daily doses on regional information, and — very soon — a vaccination.

None of these things, Brooks took lightly in Wednesday's meeting, repeatedly thanking Whalen, Public Health Services Administrator Don Duffy, Environmental and Health Protection Administrator Joseph Righello, and Public Information Officer Katherine Hoyer.

Through the pandemic, which Brooks equated to war, he believes the district's work has been monumental.

"I called Lora last week and said I wanted to come in and simply say thank you for what they're doing," he said. "And to tell all the people here, thank you as well because this is huge. This is a war, and we need to treat it like so."

The four officials were candid about the last nine months because they have been hard. They all agreed that the undying loyalty and efforts of staff and volunteers have helped.

"It's been difficult. The stress on this staff is immense," Duffy said. "They've got families they're trying to take care of, kids to get to school or teaching at home, they have spouses who have lost their jobs. It is very challenging for them. We don't even know when this is going to end, yet they stay and fight."

Due to the overwhelming need, PHD has enlisted 25 new employees, volunteers, 100 medical reserve corps, and 24 National Guardsmen. By the end of October, volunteers had donated nearly 9,000 hours of service. Duffy said that now closing out December, they expect it's well over 10,000.

"That is close to five full-time employees," Righello said. "When you add that up and think about what their work here is, it's just incredible."

Righello said if he could have one request, it would be to thank Gov. Brad Little for deploying the National Guard. With the supplemental workforce, he said health agencies are leveraging more aid faster.

"As Commissioner Brooks said, in some respects, this is a war," Righello said. "Everybody that comes through that door, whether they are a volunteer or an employee, has taken on that warrior ethos. It humbles us."

There's no crystal ball, Whalen said, but she's predicting good things coming by summer 2021.

"I would hope that we would be back to some sense of normalcy in July," she said. "It's not going to be a straight line. It's going to take some twists and turns, but we're going to get there."

Like all other Idahoans, Whalen, Duffy, Righello, Hoyer, and the Panhandle Health District board are in this pandemic together.

"You people are leaders here in this building in this community," Brooks said. "It sounds like you've done a great job in instilling that mental toughness in your people. It's amazing how many different things you do."