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In the thick of it

Andresen coordinates county communications amid outbreak

SOLON– It all changed Monday, March 9.
Johnson County Communications Coordinator Kelli Andresen was home in Solon with a pink-eyed daughter.
Johnson County Public Health (JCPH) and the Iowa Department of Public Health (IDPH) were notified of the state’s first positive case of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the 2019 novel coronavirus.
It was in Johnson County.
Andresen made arrangements and went into work where she met with Emergency Management Director Dave Wilson and JCPH Director Dave Koch and started getting information out to the public.
The Johnson County Emergency Management Agency (EMA) is an independent entity and operating arm of the Johnson County Emergency Management Commission, made up of the 11 mayors of Johnson County, the sheriff and a county supervisor. JCPH reports to the Board of Health, which is an independent board appointed by the supervisors.
“Since day one, I have been working with both EMA and Public Health to coordinate a unified message from Johnson County for all of our community members and staff, she said.
The next month was a whirlwind as the virus eventually spread into the community and across the state.
Andresen and her colleagues were in the thick of it.
“It was constantly changing,” she said. “This was a new virus so we’re learning new things about it every day, and at the beginning it seemed like almost hourly we would get new information.”
Early on, the state had not established a schedule for putting out information and Johnson County spent a lot of time reacting to announcements by Gov. Kim Reynolds.
On one particular day, the county hosted a press conference and by the time Andresen issued a news release, the governor came out with new information.
“It just felt for a while like we were kind of always chasing our tail,” she noted.
The government entities worked to improve the coordinated release of accurate and timely information, she added.
Over the course of weeks, Johnson County reduced the number of press conferences from daily to twice a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays.
County officials are now meeting with the press weekly, unless otherwise needed, she said.
But for about a two-week period, Andresen and other officials were working non-stop with community partners to keep on top of a global pandemic.
“It was a lot of long days,” she observed.
On some days, the morning started with two or three meetings back to back.
JCPH set up its incident command structure based on the federal framework on day one, she said, and each morning started with an incident command briefing.
Each weekday afternoon since March 10, anywhere from 80-100 decision makers from different communities and organizations gathered for a conference call with the county’s emergency operations center to provide and receive situational updates, including individual needs.
The Johnson County Board of Supervisors also held emergency and off-schedule meetings, as well.
The county diverted staff to assist Andresen when things were at their most stressful. Four additional employees and a couple other support staff were added to the communications department for the duration.
“That’s really, really helped in terms of workload and organization,” she noted.
Andresen and coworkers adapted to the new normal.
“This is a completely new situation for everybody,” she explained. “In Johnson County we’ve dealt with floods, we’ve dealt with tornados, we’ve dealt with those types of things that are typically short events.”
In those cases, the county would schedule a news conference and 20 reporters would show up.
“This has completely changed everything,” she said. “Just yesterday, we did a press conference where there wasn’t a single reporter in the room.”
It was streamed live on YouTube and Facebook, and journalists emailed and texted questions. Dave Koch and Dave Wilson were physically present, while hospital representatives responded remotely.
When the first positive cases were being announced, Andresen said, everyone gathered in one room, with all the speakers standing together at the podium.
With each successive press conference, changes were made to incorporate social distancing, bringing a single speaker on at a time.
“We’re constantly having to think about how we can do a better job of practicing what we preach and following the guidance we are giving our community members,” she observed.
Andresen, 38, has been communications coordinator for Johnson County since December of 2017, but her experience in public sector communications goes back to her first job in 2007.
A native of Dubuque County, she grew up on a farm between Dyersville and Dubuque, attending school at Beckman Catholic.
“I drove past the Field of Dreams twice a day on my way from home to school,” she said.
After obtaining her undergraduate degree in communications at the University of Northern Iowa, she moved to Iowa City in 2005 for graduate school and ended up taking a job with the University of Iowa.
Andresen and her husband Nate Mueller moved to Solon in May of 2017 with daughters Ella and Amelia. Their sixth anniversary falls in May.
“I hope we’ll actually be able to celebrate by that point,” she said.
Prior to March, her primary responsibilities reflected the description of a traditional communications position. She authored press releases, created content for and managed county social media accounts, made website updates, handled a lot of internal communications and prepared presentations for the supervisors.
She also serves and assists all county departments with communication needs.
While things normalized a little bit since the initial outbreak, Andresen realizes it can change again with the snap of a finger.
Public health and emergency management staff continue to maintain constant contact with officials at the state level, she said, with many other departments doing the same.
She hadn’t worked extensively with the public health office before, and has impressed with the leadership shown by Koch and his team.
Koch has an extensive background in public health, having served as public information officer for the Cedar Rapids Fire Department during the 2008 flood, and knows the importance of getting information out to the public, she said.
“They’re a bunch of really skilled individuals who truly care about serving the Johnson County community as best they can,” she noted.
The county is also fortunate to have strong ties with an outstanding local healthcare system, Andresen said.
“We have some amazing medical professionals who really know what they’re talking about and have some good vision,” she added.
Her office has shifted from press releases and press conferences to lots of targeted messaging to schools, churches, community organizations and businesses, including posters, videos and graphics for harder-to-reach populations and coordinated social media posts across a number of channels.
“We are really using every tool in our toolbox that we can think of to spread the word, and we are always looking for even more ways that we can reach out,” Andresen said. “It’s challenging right now, but I think this will actually improve the ways we communicate as a county in general for the future.”
It’s so important for the community to realize we’re all in this together, she said. Everyone should know the basics by now– practice social distancing, cover your cough or sneeze, wash your hands and stay home when ill. People might think it’s not making a difference, but it is, she assured.
“I know that it’s stressful and I know that everybody’s getting stir crazy,” she said. “But the longer that we can keep practicing those things, the sooner we can slow this down and get back to life as we used to know it.”