Nurse copes with scofflaws, overload
Diedre Serene’s role as county health nurse extends far beyond coordinating its response to COVID-19.
But many in the county still are surprised at the scope of her job, she said.
“That’s absolutely true,” she said. “A lot of people, when we hire here, they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, I never knew you did all this.’ That the health department offers all this.”
The position often is more about administrative duties. A large portion of the job includes writing grants and compiling data rather than nursing, Serene said.
“You always want to move with what the needs are in a community,” she said. “We’ve had to be flexible and change as you get different organizations out there doing different things.”
The county’s Healthy Start program, for example, became a nonfactor because its function was similar to Parents as Teachers, Serene said.
“We have to be aware, so we aren’t duplicating services and use up resources,” she said.
COVID-19 has brought people closer together out of a need to cooperate, but Serene also has seen significant resistance to efforts that could combat the virus.
When the pandemic does come up it now is discussed differently than it was months ago, she said.
“Right now I feel like it’s not necessarily anymore of a health issue but more of a political issue,” she said. “That is frustrating. It frustrates the heck out of me.”
An increasing lack of cooperation with contact tracing adds to the frustration of failed requests for mask orders both by herself and county health consultant Don Hodson, Serene said.
“It’s very tough to get across health and responsibilities to individuals who don’t see the big picture,” she said. “It’s not about taking rights away, much like seatbelts. We have to wear our seatbelts or we get fined; we have to wear seatbelts for our health.”
County commissioners revisited mask orders again at Monday’s county commission meeting when commissioner Kent Becker read a letter from a resident pleading with commissioners to initiate a mandate.
When Serene and Hodson proposed a mask order several months ago, Becker was one of three commissioners who voted against the proposal.
Serene’s frustration might explain her strong feelings about receiving four weeks of vacation. As county health nurse, she receives 160 hours of vacation a year, and lobbied at Monday’s meeting to ensure it was paid.
She won’t be able to use the full amount, and any unused time goes to waste.
As seriously as she takes the pandemic, she admitted that a post on the county’s website had been displaying misleading and now false information as recently as Monday.
The statement, posted in spring toward the end of flu season, said, “As the COVID-19 situation changes, so does information. COVID-19 is a novel virus similar to the cold. The flu is more deadly than COVID-19, therefore it is not too late for individuals to get their flu vaccination.”
Serene looked into the statement on the department’s website Monday after county commissioner Randy Dallke reported someone had called his wife about the misinformation.
The health department doesn’t maintain their own web page, Serene said. Information is posted by the county clerk’s office after the health department tells them what to post.
“To be honest with you, I hadn’t seen it,” she said.
Serene said she was not trying to make excuses, but the incorrect information simply didn’t come to her attention.
“I’m glad someone pointed it out,” Serene said. “It’s off now, and we move on.”
The statement about COVID-19 being more deadly than flu was correct when it was posted, but no one removed it when the information changed, Serene said.
“I feel like we’re trying to be as transparent as we can,” she said. “I asked commissioners to put our one nurse full-time. Every time there’s a positive case in the county, that’s not just a phone call. We have paperwork, we have to verify the lab report, and when we call an individual — that takes time.”
At the same time, Serene announced at Monday’s county commission meeting that she wanted to stop releasing daily updates of new COVID-19 cases along with their genders and ages.
The press release the health department sent out Monday did not include age categories.
Although commissioners did not give Serene permission to stop releasing information about the county’s COVID-19 victims, they did not insist she continue.
“I think our dashboard would still contain the number of active cases, the number of positive cases, and the number of tests,” chairman Jonah Gehring said.
Even before COVID-19, Serene already was seeing changes in how the health department operated.
“It definitely has gotten busier with disease investigation,” she said. “That even was before this. They started blood-lead studies to find out at what level they were seeing adverse affects in children.”
Blood-leading is checking blood levels to test for lead poisoning.
Serene also is seeing greater levels of regionalized care. The drawback is that it becomes difficult to establish the same individual connections and provide the same services as before, she said.
Childcare licensing was one service that suffered recently. The county used to have a surveyor, but lost that access when the service was consolidated to an office out of Emporia, Serene said.
“Every time you regionalize something you lose that personal touch,” she said.
While the job has changed, Serene still loves the work she does.
“I’m pretty passionate in what I do,” she said. “I wouldn’t have stayed as long as I have if I didn’t believe in what I was doing and have passion for it.”
Last modified Nov. 12, 2020