Mike Charley, head of Oak Park’s health department, said he is still putting in some 12-hour days, but two-plus months into Oak Park’s stay-at-home regimen, he is no longer working seven days a week.
Asked Friday what his biggest concern is at this point, Charley said, “If you’d asked me that six weeks ago, I’d have said what should the protocols and the procedures be? I’d ask, ‘What is COVID-19?’ Now, as a local village, we’ve learned a lot.”
What comes next though has concerns attached. “There is an unknown. What happens as we open up? Oak Park, the state of Illinois, will we see a spike?”
Charley, with 16 years in the Oak Park Health Department, 24 years total in public health, was a one man band pre-COVID-19. The health department had been pared back considerably over decades. But even with one staff member, Oak Park had the advantage of being a state-certified public health department, one of a handful in Cook County.
Since the pandemic was declared, Village Manager Cara Pavlicek has surrounded Charley with colleagues from other departments — police, fire, development services — and has rehired public health nurses. Charley has worked to expand the Medical Reserve Corps — a local team of volunteers with health backgrounds which is now up to 30 to 40 people.
“Cara Pavlicek has done a great job,” says Charley. “It has been all hands on deck.”
“I’d be lying if I said we were fully prepared for this. You don’t ever get 100 percent prepared for a novel virus. But in public health there is a lot of training so we were pretty prepared.”
Charley said the village “knew right away that nursing homes and other congregate settings” would be hot spots. “We were in those facilities before they had their first case,” he said. “You look at this disease and how it transmits — airborne, within 6 feet — and you know.”
As of the weekend, five local nursing homes or senior facilities had reported resident deaths. Belmont Village, Berkeley, Brookdale and the Oak Park Arms each had lost a resident to the virus. But Oasis, a nursing home on Harlem Avenue, had reported the deaths of seven residents. Why so many?
Charley was both direct and diplomatic in responding. He said skilled nursing facilities like Oasis will always have more direct interactions between staff and patients that boost the transmission potential. Beyond that the facility’s double occupancy rooms, the size of those rooms, the number of patients all contribute. However, he noted, the deaths at Oasis are “not just happenstance either.” He referenced “internal procedures” and “infection control” measures that “made it an uphill battle to get control.”
On the other hand, Charley said plans to open the Oak Park Farmers Market on May 30 were “not complicated. We have just relied on best practices.” The modified market he said is “very important. It is an opportunity for residents to enjoy the outdoors and get fresh food.”
Charley said 95 percent of the feedback received from residents is positive. He credited first responders, mask makers, nonprofits working with the homeless and hungry and residents who are following the challenging quarantine rules. He expressed worries for the mental health of some people in isolation or otherwise under severe stress.
“I feel horrible for the business community and people who are out of work,” he said. Now, “after the first couple of weeks that were crazy and chaotic,” he feels “cautiously optimistic.”
At the start, he said, it was about “making decisions and more decisions, good decisions. And about learn, learn, learn. We’ve accomplished a lot.”