Responding to a Water Contamination Incident in Illinois
Cumberland County is a rural area of approximately 11,000 people in southeastern Illinois. Because it doesn’t have the infrastructure and resources that larger counties and cities do, its seven-person health department relies heavily on PHEP funds to respond to health-related emergencies. Such was the case in May 2017, when a major water line broke beneath an already flooded river, contaminating the water supply in the entire region and leaving some residents completely without water. The Cumberland County Health Departments’ PHEP-funded staff members relied on their training and close-knit community to strengthen the community’s ability or prepare for, withstand, and recover from the threat of waterborne diseases.
When the water main broke, a boil water advisory went out for the surrounding area. However, a lack of local radio or television channels made communicating this alert difficult. Through a PHEP-established relationship with the Medical Reserve Corp (MRC), the local health department was able to use an MRC messaging system called Code Red to send voice and text messages to registered landlines and cell phones. Additionally, the local environmental health specialist worked with each county restaurant individually to make sure the restaurant staff understood and complied with the advisory. Health department staff also went door-to-door in local neighborhoods, with special emphasis paid to elderly citizens, to check on residents and deliver water. They also kept the health department Facebook page updated and set up water distribution sites with bottled water donated by private partners such as Walmart, Coca-Cola, and Anheuser-Busch. Health department staff also handed out risk communication materials regarding safe water. The health department’s PHEP-funded WebEOC system, a crisis management and communication software, allowed the county to stay in contact with the state emergency operations center, which was activated for widespread flooding. These activities ensured that all residents had access to safe water, preventing waterborne illnesses.
Living in a small town comes with benefits. Although the health department was not able to reach everyone directly, essential health information spread quickly through word of mouth. When a local business heard that some residents were entirely without water, it opened use of its showers to those residents, providing them with coffee while they waited. That kind of community resiliency is the ultimate goal of the PHEP program.