Jen Tobey speaks to health board

Emergency Management Director Jen Tobey, right, speaks to the Elkhart County Health Board on Friday.

ELKHART — The team that came together to manage the response to COVID-19 in Elkhart County has been tested by disasters in the past.

Response team members recently began meeting every morning, which they do soon after starting the day at their normal jobs, said Elkhart County Emergency Management Director Jennifer Tobey. Their task is to respond to the needs that come up during the unfolding public health emergency and connect people to resources.

The unified command consists of Tobey, county Health Officer Lydia Mertz and a representative from each hospital in Elkhart and Goshen. The incident management team under them includes representatives from Elkhart and Goshen fire departments, the Elkhart Police Department and the city 911 center, as well as county emergency management and health department.

“It’s just been phenomenal,” Tobey said Tuesday. “Really never had anybody decline coming to the table to help.”

They’re supported both by their own staff and by employees from the county and the cities who have been reallocated to the management team. They’re also working with Community Organizations Active in Disasters to get help finding people and resources that they need, depending on what the objective is.

Tobey stressed that “management” is the key word.

“You have to understand, the unified command doesn’t mean that we solve all the problems – we’re managing the incident,” she said. “So we’re identifying, for example, how are children getting fed when they normally would have been fed in schools. So we’re coordinating with the schools to make sure there are still programs in place to make sure kids are getting fed.”

Piece by pieceAs another priority this week, the team is making sure that personal protection gear is going where it’s needed most, which started with first responders and law enforcement. The masks and other supplies are now being distributed to long-term care and assisted living facilities, out of the county health department’s own stockpile.

The team keeps a weekly action plan, which they update every time they add or fulfill an objective. It numbers the team’s goals, from taking stock of protective supplies, to ensuring emergency responders understand exposure procedures, to establishing shelter locations for subjects who may need to be quarantined.

Other objectives include looking at staffing and equipment needs at hospitals and assessing the needs at the county jail or among police officers who are out and about, according to Tobey. They also field numerous questions, such as what authority police have or what businesses are considered essential based on executive orders from the governor.

“We’re kind of acting as a central hub, where people bring their concerns or comments to us and we figure out what resources they need or how to get those resources,” she said. “Every day, we take another piece of the pie and try to address it with whatever the needs are.”

To help answer questions from the public, the county established a phone bank staffed by volunteers.

Adam Amsden, assistant department head for Elkhart City 911, said the volunteers have come in from a variety of sources and are split among two locations, in order to keep them physically separate.

He said most of the questions coming in are generalized and can be answered with information from the Centers for Disease Control website. More specific questions are handled case-by-case.

“The idea behind this hotline is to be staffed from morning until later in the evening to assist people with questions they may have,” Amsden said. “There is an influx in calls after new information is released. For example, after the governor’s executive order yesterday, the number of calls increased with questions regarding that and how it would pertain to them.”

Around the tableTobey noted that the incident management group is similar to the team that oversaw large public events like country western concerts and the Elkhart County Fair last year, with a few vital additions.

“Same kind of makeup. A few different people added to the table, because this is still a public health emergency. So we most definitely need the expertise from the health officer and the use of her staff,” she said. “But it’s all of us coming together to represent an oversight committee for the entire county.”

Tobey said the team started with Indiana Public Health Preparedness District 2, comprised of Elkhart and surrounding counties, which was organized by the state Department of Health a few years ago.

“And we deployed to quite a few natural disasters throughout Indiana as well as outside of Indiana, and the concept and the training worked so well that we as a county have adopted it locally,” she said. “It’s just a system that works well for all the different variety of incidents that we seem to continue to have around Elkhart County.”

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