Although it seems like yesterday, I distinctly remember getting a phone call from former Health Director Jen Rombalski early last year as I was walking home from work.
The Health Department had been monitoring COVID-19 from the start and Jen told me this was going to evolve quickly, and we needed to prepare. By March there was the first positive case in La Crosse County and, based on what was happening in other regions of the country, the scale of what we were facing was clear.
Internally, across 29 county departments, our organization pivoted almost overnight as the state went into lockdown. That’s not easy to do for any large organization.
The secret county superheroes were IT staff. Suddenly, they had to answer questions about Zoom and Microsoft Teams, about how to connect to work networks from home, and so much more. Across all departments a spirit of transformation set in, which was truly impressive to watch. I can say with pride that the pandemic has made La Crosse County more agile and open to change.
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Normal life continued as best it could during those early months of the pandemic. That meant we had to find creative solutions to continue providing vital public services while keeping everyone safe.
Our county clerk managed national and local elections through some of the worst months of the pandemic. Our Register of Deeds launched curbside service, and county libraries implemented safety measures to offer nearly uninterrupted service.
As the pandemic weighed on the economy, our Human Services Department and nursing homes met increased safety guidelines with patience and lots of hand sanitizer. From sheriff’s deputies to highway workers and others too numerous to list, county employees rolled up their sleeves and got the job done, no matter how much it stretched our comfort level.
Of course, the Health Department was the part of our organization most impacted by COVID-19. Jen, who has now departed for a post with the state, deserves all the praise she received for her leadership. She would be the first to note the talented team of professionals who supported her and our community every step of the way.
The Health Department was placed under an intense public spotlight and became the key source for COVID-19 updates for our community. Developing a careful communication strategy that could win public trust in the things we all needed to do to slow the spread of COVID-19 was critical. I think the department, under tremendous pressure, won that mission. Years of preparation for a crisis like this one paid off.
I should also note that thanks to the expertise of staff we maximized $6.4 million in federal relief funding we received, stretching that money to cover almost all unbudgeted COVID-19 expenses. Our efficient use of federal pandemic funding allowed the county to maintain its strong fiscal position as we entered 2021.
We will face new situations, and we’ve learned from COVID-19 how to respond even better to the next one, whatever form it takes. This is not to suggest the pandemic is over, it is not, and we must remain vigilant. But as the vaccination rollout continues, there is real hope for recovery on the horizon.
At La Crosse County, I’m convinced we will come out of this pandemic a stronger and more nimble organization, focused on improving the public services we provide. The county’s employees have consistently proven their dedication during this incredibly testing time.
Their continued efforts are what will drive us forward to a brighter future.
Jane Klekamp is associate
La Crosse County administrator.
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