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HUNTINGTON — Though obviously tired, leaders at the Cabell-Huntington Health Department are encouraged by the community’s response to testing for COVID-19 as recent news about a vaccine renews their energy.

Kathleen Napier, head nurse at the health department, didn’t have time to submit her monthly reports to the Board of Health on Wednesday but has been hard at work coordinating COVID-19 testing, flu vaccinations and contact tracing. Cabell County has 25 active outbreaks of COVID-19 and has identified 833 new positive cases so far in November. Napier said she wouldn’t be surprised if they surpass 1,000 cases this month.

The team is dealing with the highest level of contact tracing ever in the department’s history.

But Napier said she is encouraged by the amount of testing being performed at the health department’s drive-thru tent. They have also provided 4,000 flu vaccines, a lot at the drive-thru.

Dr. Michael Kilkenny, health officer of the health department, told the board that Cabell’s testing has only been matched per capita by Monongalia County, which has the support of West Virginia University. He said the testing at the health department is only a fraction of the testing being done, applauding work done by Mountain Health Network and other partners.

The health department received its first CARES Act reimbursement for more than $100,000, and Kilkenny said it catches the department’s budget up through August.

The funding is a relief, he said, especially as the health department prepares to dispense the COVID-19 vaccine.

“We are preparing to immunize an entire population,” Kilkenny said. “The news coming out about (the vaccine) and the information of just scant weeks (of) further waiting is really energizing. We try to pass on that additional energy onto the public. The light at the end of the tunnel is crucial to our ability to push through … We are prepared to administer and are just waiting for that. Our (public information officer) is putting out messaging all the time to get people’s energies back up for the final push. I know everyone is tired of this pandemic. But when you can see the end of it and just know you need to hold on for a little longer, you know you can do it because you can see the end — that’s powerful.”

Kilkenny said by the next board meeting in January, they expect to be fully into administering the vaccine.

All this work continues as the health department is down nine staff members. It’s difficult to recruit for public health during regular times, and the pandemic makes it even more difficult, officials said.

To help, the board passed a resolution Wednesday permitting the health department to sever its service level agreement with the West Virginia Division of Personnel. The health department will now handle hiring in-house. Department administrator Tim Hazelett said they did extensive research on the move and it will not affect any current employee or their benefits.

He said they determined this was the best way to help better the service to the community.

Reporter Taylor Stuck can be reached at tstuck@hdmediallc.com. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook @TaylorStuckHD.

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