A newly-created pandemic operations center within New Hanover County’s Health and Human Services department – thought to be among the first in the nation at the local level – is up and running to meet current pandemic needs and to plan for future emergencies.
By doing so, it will also take pressure off hundreds of county employees and volunteers, many of whom have worked double duty and fought burnout addressing COVID-19 over the past two years while also tending to other health needs, officials said.
“What we’re doing is really allowing the staff to transition back to what their primary duties are, and the secondary duties have now become primary duties for a pandemic operations team,” said Jon Campbell, manager of the county’s new pandemics division.
Campbell is a major in the Army National Guard with 13 years of experience as a physician assistant who has done tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. On the civilian side, he has worked at health facilities including Vidant Duplin Hospital and Novant Health New Hanover Regional Medical Center. During the past year, he led a guard team assigned to work alongside New Hanover County staff.
“At one point there was about 11 of us here in New Hanover County, and, yes, I was the officer-in-charge,” Campbell said. “I had visibility of what New Hanover had done related to the pandemic, being directly involved in it from a military perspective for a solid year. Then, they started advertising that they would be creating this pandemic response team … so I said, you know what, let me look at this opportunity a little bit closer.”
Staffing for the 17-person operations center, at 1507 Greenfield St. in Wilmington, is just about complete.
Paid for with $3.7 million in American Rescue Plan funds that also cover building renovations and a lease with AT&T, staff positions include an epidemiologist, contract tracers who can track the spread of communicable diseases, data administrators, several nurses, an inventory control technician and a community outreach specialist.
Using the $3.7 million, the team’s operations are fully funded through December 2024. The group’s epidemiologist will help alert decision-makers to any future pandemics, Campbell said.
“They will certainly help identify disease trends, identify clusters … as well as being able to really look toward the future of saying, ‘Oh, there’s a commonality of a new influenza-like illness. It’s not quite flu, it’s not quite COVID, but it seems like there’s a cluster to this.’”