SALISBURY – Walking the labyrinthine hallways of the Rowan County Health Department, Director of Health Alyssa Harris finds there is no room for improvement.
There are small, demarcated waiting areas and “cubic farms” where employees work closely together. A redeveloped community room is filled with COVID-19 response personnel. Boxes of supplies are stacked in the corner of an office with nowhere to go.
The health department is primarily located at 1811 E. Innes St. in a refurbished Brendle’s store. The building contains the Smile Center, administrative offices, examination rooms and laboratories. It is also where the department administers its program for women, infants and children, provides vaccines, and assists clients with family planning and care management, among other services. The The Environmental Health Division, which reports to the Department of Health and performs soil inspections and food and accommodation inspections, is located several miles away at 402 N. Main St.
While the Department of Health headquarters has supported its operations for the past two decades, Harris said the growing division has overtaken its facilities.
âWe’re in pretty tight quarters,â Harris said. “I’m not saying we want the department to grow unnecessarily, but if there’s an opportunity for us to reach out and support the community, we want to do that and part of that is having a good space. to do it.”
That’s why Rowan County is in talks with ADW Architects to have the Charlotte-based company conduct a space requirements study for the Department of Health. The study will assess the ministry’s current facilities and make recommendations for the future. County manager Aaron Church said the contract with ADW Architects would likely be on the agenda for Rowan County Commissioners‘ Council to consider.
ADW Architects conducted an in-depth study in 2015 that included all the different divisions of the county, from social services to tax administration. The results of the study indicated that the Department of Health was one of many that needed more space.
The study showed that the physical footprint of the Ministry of Health had several positive points. Its main location on East Innes Street was deemed satisfactory for customer access. Examination rooms and negative pressure rooms were in adequate number and use. The laboratory was sufficient and the physical facility was found to be in good condition.
The Department of Health is also attached to the Department of Human Services, which helps the two divisions communicate and provide collaborative care to clients. The county also discussed the move of Social Services, another department identified as having space needs in the 2015 survey.
The list of challenges highlighted by the 2015 study for the Ministry of Health was twice as long.
The study indicated that there was generally no room for growth, not enough parking spaces for clients, and appointment desks were not private enough. Additionally, the study indicated that the physical separation between most health services and environmental health was not ideal.
âWhat they found in this space study is that at this time, 2020-2021, we would really need a much bigger space,â Harris said. âWe are going back to work with ADW to ask them to reassess. Where do we come from where we said we need to be? Do we need so much space? Is this still an appropriate response?
The Ministry of Health’s need for space has been compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced the ministry to make physical and policy adjustments.
The community hall has been converted into the department’s COVID-19 command center, where a handful of staff are coordinating the county’s response to the ongoing pandemic.
Since the community hall is where the Board of Health meets, the 11-person advisory committee has been meeting virtually since the start of the pandemic. Council member and county commissioner Judy Klusman said having enough space for the council to meet would help.
âWe have several new members and other than knowing their faces and names and a few comments they make at meetings, I don’t really know these people,â Klusman said. âI would like to know them because I know they are dedicated to public health.
The community hall is not the only area inside the Ministry of Health building affected by the pandemic. Several small waiting rooms for clients have been closed because they are not spacious enough to allow for social distancing.
To minimize contact between clients, a staff member is stationed in a newly built closed office to screen clients for COVID and direct them to the right location.
âWe don’t have proper patient separation,â Klusman said. “Someone who may have a virus should sit in the same area with someone who has a baby who is doing a good check.”
Even when the pandemic is over and several temporary positions are no longer needed, Harris said the space needs will not go away.
The roughly 70 employees who work at the Department of Health’s East Innes Street site are close to each other, but could be forced even closer if the department fills a number of open positions. It’s also possible, Harris said, that the department could add new positions if state funding for public health workforce development materializes.
âIf this leads to additional funding for the staff, it will be really difficult to find places for them to sit,â said Harris.
The Department of Health is already scheduled to hold department-wide meetings at West End Plaza, as it’s the only place that’s big enough. This forces its staff at two separate locations to pass through Salisbury.
While the county is unlikely to take any action to relocate the department until the study is complete, there are signs that West End Plaza will be the department’s eventual headquarters. The former county-owned mall is where the department based its COVID-19 response earlier this year.
âWith the pandemic itself, being able to settle in like we did at the West End Plaza was so precious,â Klusman said. âWe learned so much doing this. The previous commission bought the building saying that we have to consider setting up the DSS and the Ministry of Health and so we start with health because these are the people who need it most.
Klusman also pointed out that there is little room at 1811 E. Innes St. for the county to build on the department’s current facilities without taking away much-needed parking from customers.
Harris agrees that West End Plaza would serve the health department well and already has ideas on how she could use the extra room. At the top of her wishlist is a large community gathering space, larger than the room currently used as a COVID command center.
âIf we could have more activities where people from the community come here, I think it would help people understand what we do and why we are important and see us as this place of chief health strategist. they know health The department is where they go to be healthy, âsaid Harris,
Having more space would also allow the ministry to consolidate environmental health and the rest of its services in one place.
âWe have a whole department that’s not even here,â Harris said. âI think that’s another big problem, is that we don’t have all of our staff under one roof. Not that this is necessary to ensure that everything is done, but I think being that one-stop-shop for citizens is really important to me.
More space, anyway, would fit with his vision of making the Department of Health âa place for everyone,â Harris said.