The first doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine are administered Dec. 16 at WhidbeyHealth in Coupeville.

Island County is looking to replace the public health officer, nursing director and three public health nurses who left during the COVID-19 holiday surge.

“This was an overwhelming year,” Island County Commissioner Janet St. Clair said. “It was a significant loss of staffing.”

While the county advertises to replace the nurses, the state is providing a public health officer. The state started providing weekend case investigations on Dec. 7 and the whole program the following week, Public Health Director Keith Higman said.

“Since we passed off case investigation and contact tracing to (Department of Health), it doesn’t change the response capacity to conduct the work. Our nursing corps are still responding to cases of other communicable diseases and they are participating in vaccine distribution planning,” Higman said.

Don Mason, Island County COVID response manager, said that Island County public health requested to fill two additional positions in November before the department lost staff. The county earlier advertised and is currently interviewing.

“I’m so glad we’ve gotten the positive response to the nurse openings that, we have people ... that want to step into the fire in this difficult time,” Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson said at the Dec. 22 commissioners meeting.

Public health shoulders COVID load

In normal times, public health nurses deliver nutritional programs for women and children and work with high-risk mothers and babies. They also work in disease surveillance, public health education and outreach, which links people to nutrition programs. They do wound care for the homeless and outreach for addicts in a needle exchange program to connect them to substance abuse services, St. Clair said.

When COVID-19 hit, public nurses helped keep Island County cases down through education and outreach. In addition to their regular work, they did case investigations on positive COVID-19 cases and contact tracing and provided clinical guidance when people called in who feared they had the coronavirus, tested positive or cared for others who were ill, she said.

They were so diligent, responsive and caring, officials said. They helped hold the line against the spread that started in the spring.

“They worked seven days a week sometimes, because the virus didn’t have boundaries,” said St. Clair said, who as an Island County commissioner also serves on the Island County Public Health Board of Health.

Public Health Officer Dr. Joel McCullough opted not to renew his contract. He worked 3-4 hours per week as the head authority of Public Health. The state will provide a health officer until the county finds a replacement.

McCullough was hired to replace Dr. Chris Spitters, who temporarily served Island County while working for Snohomish County. Last spring, Spitters left Island County when COVID-19 infections exploded in Snohomish County. McCullough stepped into the temporary position while working another full-time job and opted not to renew his contract for 2021.

Commissioner speaks out at meeting

On Dec. 22, Island County Commissioner Jill Johnson expressed anger at not being updated on the brewing situation until staff resigned.

“There’s a lot in our past that informs us as to how we got here. In terms of the nurses, it’s a competitive market, and people are burning out, but I have yet to see a presentation come to the board about wage increases in the short term for COVID work. Those decisions need to come to the board," Johnson said. “From the standpoint of this board, we were asking a lot of these questions in advance, we were providing the public with assurances that things are fine, and the reality of it is that things weren’t fine. And I’d like to know what we do to protect ourselves if the state doesn’t perform.”

Island County COVID Response Manager Don Mason is not in the health department but works to update the commissioners on COVID-19 matters. He laid out the current status during the meeting and assured them he would get answers quickly.

St. Clair asked that Public Health email a report to commissioners on Mondays so they can prepare questions in advance of Tuesday’s regular meeting. Commissioner Helen Price Johnson asked for a written copy of the oral report for reference.

The state offers some help with contact tracers and investigators, Mason said.

“There’s a pool at the state system of these resources, and they’re handling us and 16 other counties,” he said.

Cases rise, vaccine arrives

Meanwhile, the county moves forward in the COVID-19 response.

The county hired two contact tracers over the summer. Eight of them are training in the latest state CREST program that focuses on support and tracing of vulnerable populations.

Contact tracing showed the cases that exploded in November were due to people attending weddings and other gatherings.

“People were tired. I can’t blame them. This was a grueling year,” St. Clair said, but added “The majority of the people have followed the rules. We need to honor that.”

The first batch of vaccine arrived Dec. 16 in Island County, and WhidbeyHealth did a test-run of 20 vaccinations the next day, according to the Whidbey Health website.

Island County was one of the first counties to vaccinate in the 1A category of people who are at high-risk for exposure, which includes health care workers, dentists, physicians, workers and patients at long-term care facilities and first responders such as firefighters and paramedics, St. Clair said.

Camano Island Fire and Rescue is standing by to assist with vaccinations.

St. Clair said the state’s systems keep improving. They’ve added more digital tools and now focus on the most vulnerable and high-risk groups.

“I have every belief that we can continue to learn what we can do to do better, add resources and respond to the pandemic,” St. Clair said.

Contact reporter Peggy Wendel at or 360-416-2189.

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