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Stretched to the Limit, Marshall County Health Department Expanding Services

Photo by Alan Olson - Nursing Director Misty Merinar, right, and Marisa Houck are hard at work Friday morning at the Marshall County Health Department.

MOUNDSVILLE — At the end of the first year of the pandemic, the staff and operations of the Marshall County Health Department were stretched thin, working weeks on end without a break, while non-essential services such as vaccinations for anything other than COVID-19 had been reduced to only what was necessary.

Now going into the third year of the pandemic, the same health department has managed to not only return to its full slate of health services, but expand them.

At the same time, many on the staff have been working to maintain morale, driven largely out of a sense of duty to help their community. Many volunteers have worked with the health department for months now, their assistance vital to the continued functioning of the department, and with numerous county agencies providing workers to help keep things going.

Health Administrator Tom Cook said that it was the continued dedication of employees, and the continued support of Marshall County, that kept the health department going despite the ongoing pandemic.

“The volunteers, all the organizations from the schools to the county commission, to (Marshall County) 911, to (WVU Medicine Reynolds Memorial Hospital) – everyone pulling together through this, we couldn’t do it without everyone,” Cook said. “People are starting to see what health departments actually do. It’s a big change in people’s perceptions of what we do.”

Cook said there were two regular volunteers, but in a pinch, dozens could be called upon. Partnerships with local and regional entities, he said, help with staffing to keep testing and inoculation clinics running.

“It would just be a call, and we’d have 50 volunteers in here if we needed to. When we were doing vaccination clinics, we had 10, 20 volunteers working after,” he said. “… We’ve been open seven days a week. We have our testing outside, and we partnered with the Marshall County Commission, that’s who’s doing the drive-thru testing. We’ve partnered with the National Guard, (and that’s who performs) the mobile testing you see at Benwood or Cameron.”

Vicki Allender, a retired nurse, had been called back at the beginning of the pandemic to lend her expertise to a floundering department. Now, over a year later, Allender is still working among what she described as a close-knit community of employees, which in turn keeps working hard for the community they serve.

“We have a close-knit group, and we support each other. We have a lot of support from the community, and the schools. We’re just trying to keep each other going,” Allender said. “We may be overwhelmed at times, but we each try to pick each other up. We have a wonderful administrator who keeps us going, he tries to lift our spirits.”

Allender added that the loss of life and the widespread, ongoing pandemic conditions have been demoralizing, but the workers continue to pull through.

The health department had been forced to reduce many health services at the start of the pandemic. By May 2021, most had returned, including immunization clinics, tuberculosis skin testing, family testing, STD and HIV testing, and pregnancy testing clinics, among other services. Not only had these services returned, Cook said, they were able to expand, with a new breast and cervical cancer screening clinic since having opened.

Again, Cook laid the success of being able to reintroduce health services squarely at the feet of the workers who went above and beyond to serve the public.

“We’re doing this now, with the pandemic, plus we’ve opened up all our programs. … We’re doing this with the same amount of staff that we had back in 2020,” Cook said. “… It was just that the staff wanted to do it. They wanted to increase services. I have a bunch of go-getters that are very interested in public health.”

Mary Niehaus, who has been volunteering with the department since July, said she’s felt extremely appreciated by staff, and has become a go-to source of information for friends and family with COVID questions.

“I’ve learned a lot, and I appreciate them informing me, even though I’m a volunteer. They keep me updated on everything,” Neihaus said. “I get a lot of calls from family and friends because they know I’ve been taught on this COVID stuff. It’s unbelievable.”

“… It’s the right thing to do, to volunteer here,” Neihaus added. “Even to get the vaccine, to do whatever they need me to do.”

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