A three-person office tucked away on the second floor of the Clinton County Law Center is busy.
Neither full-time contributor to Clinton County’s Emergency Management Agency — Coordinator Chance Kness, Plans Officer Nancy Burns, and Operations Officer Dan Howard — has had much time away from their phones and computers.
The COVID-19 pandemic has kept the office in constant communication with dozens of state and federal agencies to coordinate the availability of supplies, such as masks, hand sanitizers, and ventilators. The office oversees the filling of supply needs across the county, especially in the governmental and health care sectors. If a local first-response team or health care provider has exhausted all its supply lines and needs personal protection equipment (PPE) or other supplies, it contacts the county EMA office, which has resources to help fill the need.
The office’s work is often in the background, but it keeps the wheels of crisis response rolling.
In a non-crisis situation, the Clinton County EMA office coordinates law enforcement response to hazards that come about. Through training, preparedness and prevention practices, Kness and the office aim to reduce the impact of those potentially unforeseen hazards.
Since the office mobilized to face the COVID-19 pandemic earlier this month, Kness has acted as a traffic controller who keeps all areas of the crisis response in tune.
After about 40 minutes of digital silence, Kness checks his phone.
“It’s a miracle this hasn’t gone off,” he said.
Kness said at this point, Clinton County’s stock of vital medical supplies is at a reasonable level, but part of his job is to have eyes on what will be needed in the future.
“We don’t have what we want,” he said. “Right now, we have what we absolutely need. But, if we see a big increase in need because of treatment of positive patients in Clinton County at some point, we don’t have what we want for that.”
A challenging part of the EMA office’s planning is that future needs are a moving target. Usually, it’s a week-by-week proposition.
“We are tasked with being that single source for procurement for disaster supplies — to avoid duplication of effort and avoid any efficiency issues,” Kness explained. “As organizations request things from us we have to (ask) ‘Do you need this right now? When do you need it? How much do you need to get through one week?’”
Some areas of need are more black and white, and Kness knows the answer. When discussing how many more ventilators he would like to see in Clinton County, he is candid.
The county’s hand sanitizer supply, however, is one Kness is confident in. The county has sourced sanitizer from multiple manufacturers, including Mississippi River Distilling Co. in LeClaire, which has changed its operations to satisfy the national need for hand sanitizer.
“We have been able to source hand sanitizer and have been filling requests. We anticipate being able to restock that currently, not because just the distillery in LeClaire, but many different manufacturers have spun up to make sanitizer.”
Kness also said he doesn’t anticipate an immediate need for masks, at least those of the homemade variety.
“At some point we may need them, and I’ve heard of them being used over the provided protective equipment to help them last longer,” Kness said. “And certainly, if individual citizens, especially in the vulnerable group, want to use a homemade mask, then that’s a good use for it.”
Masks used in health care settings require materials with certain protection ratings. Kness said using anything else could pose a liability risk for employers.
“For an organization to use a cloth mask that was made at home — if they had something available that was manufactured for that specific purpose — they could open themselves up to liability of not protecting their employees appropriately.
“Unless we get to a point where we don’t have any of the manufactured kind in stock, we aren’t going to be using (homemade masks) for responders or healthcare workers. And I don’t anticipate (a shortage) happening.”
Kness said he appreciates citizens’ creative effort in making the masks, and they may still be needed. But unless the need becomes dire, the homemade masks would not be used as a main source of protection.
A part of the new EMA office is a spacious utility room equipped with projectors, computers, and desk clusters where crisis teams can mobilize, share ideas, and create solutions.
The COVID-19 outbreak, however, has rendered the room inadequate.
“Normally you’d look out (into the room) and there would be a sea of people out there. And now there is only a couple people,” Kness said. “The reason for that is social distancing, and having people work from home. The broad scope of this is, instead of a small subset of the government being involved, it’s quite literally everyone. There is not one person who isn’t involved in this response. Not one citizen, and not one government employee. It’s everybody involved in some shape or form nationwide. And that’s a unique thing.”
Due to social distancing rules, the County EMA office has utilized a vast instant messaging platform to streamline its communication.
“Right now we are using what we call a virtual EOC, or virtual Emergency Operations Center.”
The idea is to keep everyone on the same page with the needs of the county — from the federal, state and county level to the EMA’s 70 different volunteers who are at the ready.
“The volume of information coming out with this is vast and it’s always changing. Multiple times per day we are getting new guidance from state and federal levels. If we didn’t have that (messaging) platform set up by our IT department, we’d be sunk.”
Not his first rodeo
Since beginning his job as the Clinton County EMA Coordinator in 2007, Kness has worked multiple crises.
The Army National Guardsman served in Iraq in 2004 and 2005. Since 2010 he has been a part of the National Disaster Medical System.
He’s deployed to several hurricane relief efforts, most recently to Puerto Rico in 2017 for Hurricane Maria and Florida in 2018 for Hurricane Michael.
In those locales, Kness was in charge of perimeter security and supply coordination.
“You can’t imagine the things in a disaster situation that become an issue – like iguana bites and snakes and wild dogs and the fact that there are no street lights,” he said.
“Every disaster is unique upon itself. We do lots of things to prepare for all emergencies and disasters, and you don’t really know what you will need to use or how it will go,” Kness said. “You put basic structures in place, but it changes based on the size, scope, location, demographics, all those things come into play.”
The COVID-19 pandemic, like other crises, is unique unto itself.
“We’re dealing with things we didn’t ever contemplate, but our systems are working.”