Essential Services During a Pandemic

Posted On: June 4, 2020

County Staff Reflects on Conducting Essential Services During a Public Health Pandemic

Chris LeClair, Director, Otter Tail County Land and Resource Management shares his experience of moving a department through the COVID-19 pandemic to continue the necessary services provided by the department.

March 17, 2020 was not a typical St. Patrick’s Day.  This year I found myself in the Otter Tail County Board room sitting six feet away from the person next to me as the County Board pondered what to do about the impacts of COVID-19.  It appeared that the coronavirus was more severe than any of us anticipated.  The phrases ‘social distancing’, ‘14-day quarantine’ and ‘N95’ were suddenly being introduced to our lexicon.

The ground was thawing, and the construction season was upon us. I realized that having essential staff potentially quarantined for up to 14 days would mean delaying permits. A delay in permits would be felt through the entire local construction industry.  So I set out to develop a plan with one goal in mind: work to keep staff healthy so they could continue to do the essential work to allow permits and inspections of dwellings and septic systems to continue in Otter Tail County.

Otter Tail County innovated online permitting in 2018. This efficiency allowed remote working as laptop mounts were installed in each field staff’s county vehicle.  These innovations set up staff to react quickly when a Public Health Emergency declaration and Stay at Home Order were made in mid-March.  County field staff outfitted with iPads and laptops were quickly able to work out of their homes as trucks would become their new offices.  Permit applications, inspection requests, compliance inspections and soil observation logs were now able to be managed electronically, minimizing the need for staff or the public to come to the office.

Support from the County Board and County Administration was also key to making this work. County Commissioner Wayne Johnson says, “We have to keep this economy going.  We cannot shut down the county and stop inspections and shut down construction.  It is the right thing to do.  County Commissioners gave wide latitude to department heads to respond to this threat and keep their staff healthy to keep the economy rolling.” The allowance of field staff to take county vehicles home enabled staff to stage out of their home and reduced the need to come into the office.

County field staff were also provided with a set of guidelines to strictly follow during the pandemic.  This included wearing homemade masks provided by one of the inspector’s mom, limiting the number of individuals onsite during an inspection to no more than two persons, asking questions about whether the contractor is experiencing any symptoms or has travelled to any COVID hotspots, and following social distancing protocols.  Staff took this seriously, educated themselves on the risks and how to prevent the spread of the disease, and followed the guidelines.

This model has worked.  Jessica Fosberg, Otter Tail County SSTS Inspector, and current MOWA Board Member shared, “It’s an adjustment for everyone, but everything changes over time.  We will adjust to this new normal.  Our contractors have been fantastic and very supportive in our effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

Brian Brogard, of Brogard’s Plumbing and Heating, and a current MOWA member commented, “The staff have been very respectful and are taking the right precautions to prevent me or them from getting the virus.  They ask me a couple questions before they get out of their truck.  We stand apart, I look at the soil in the auger, I pass it to them.  We even try to pay attention to the wind so one person is not downwind from the other.  It’s going well, which keeps septic systems being installed, which is a good thing.”

Andrea Perales, Otter Tail County SSTS Inspector remarked, “I do miss seeing my coworkers, but it also makes the time I do see them that more special.”  Attempts to counter the feelings of isolation have been made by having weekly video staff meetings.  Business is conducted during these weekly staff meetings but are also used to simply check in with each other, see each other, and ask how everyone is doing.

County Administrator Nicole Hansen said, “Land and Resource was able to quickly respond to the county moving from an office environment to employees working remotely because of the technology and resources already in place.  The pandemic created opportunities for our offices to find new ways to engage our customers and create efficiencies that are likely to become a new way of doing business.”

The COVID-19 pandemic inadvertently created opportunities for Otter Tail County to continue to innovate services, enrich lives and enhance resources. Navigating the road ahead we will have the opportunity to serve our residents even more effectively and efficiently.

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