Sullivan County Health Department staff thrilled as limited normal services resume

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BLOUNTVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) – Waiting rooms buzzed Tuesday at the Sullivan County Regional Health Department (SCHD) as patients waited for their first shot at normal services in well over a year.

For department clinicians, the people waiting for childhood immunizations and physicals provided a sight for sore eyes after 16 months almost exclusively on fighting COVID-19.

“Our staff has been overworked and we are excited to get back to doing what’s ‘normal,’” SCHD Operating Director Hannah Taylor said. “Getting back to normal public health.”

SCHD began offering “limited capacity” services at its Blountville and Kingsport locations Tuesday. Masks (available on site) and social distancing are required by clients in the buildings.

Taylor said the intense focus on COVID caused negative impacts elsewhere — from higher rates of untreated sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and nutrition program participation to regular child immunizations and physicals.

“Our STD numbers are going through the roof because we have not been able to properly treat those people,” Taylor said. “That’s a lot of our clientele that we get.”

SCHD Operations Director Hannah Taylor

As cases continued a steep drop, leaders studied a variety of factors and made the call to reopen. All patients and visitors must wear masks and staff are masked during encounters as well.

“Our percent positivity was also trending down,” Taylor said. “Even though we are seeing the lag in vaccinations we felt it was a good time to go ahead and open as long as we have the safety measures we are using in place.”

The department’s important services have been limited to just a few “must-see” situations in its Kingsport office since March 2020. 

Backlogs have occurred in family planning services, with fewer people able to access the various types of birth control the department provides on a sliding fee scale.

WIC, the nutrition program for mothers with young children, has also suffered.

“That has still been running through COVID but it’s been over the phone so that has seen a huge decrease as well,” Taylor said.

Taylor said she and her colleagues are thrilled to return to the everyday.

“Right now we are focused on child health immunizations and physicals, so we know we have to make up for that time we were closed,” she said. “We have a lot of clientele that … for our immunizations they come in to us so we’re really trying to get them caught up for what their needs are.”

The department is also seeing so-called “have to see” walk-in patients. Those include people who are symptomatic with an STD.

“If you have a newborn that needs screening we do that, or emergency contraceptive we can also give that as well,” Taylor said.

Family planning services remain limited to the department’s Kingsport location, but birth control refills can be obtained in Blountville.

COVID remains a high priority, especially on the vaccination front.

“We’ve been doing public health for this past year but I think our community has really got to see what true public health really is,” Taylor said.

“So I’m hoping that people will come back into the health department and get their other services … While you’re here you can get your vaccine, we are doing vaccines at both locations as well.

The SCHD appointment line is (423) 279-2777 and other information is at sullivanhealth.org.

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