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MARION — If Franklin or Williamson counties were faced with a public health emergency and vaccines had to be dispensed, some 107,000 people in those areas would need the medicine.

Single-file, they would create a line of people stretching all the way from John A. Logan College in Carterville to Shawneetown, near the Ohio River, in Gallatin County.

That'd be a line of people — each taking up about a foot of space —stretching 52 miles long, according to one calculation.

To help fulfill a mandate to provide vaccines or other treatments to people in a public health emergency, one local health provider is recruiting local churches to serve as distributors of medicines for their congregations.

The program is Operation Noah's Ark, which is scheduled to roll out next fall, according to Ronda Koch, director of emergency preparedness for the Franklin/Williamson Bi-County Health Department. The new Franklin/Williamson County program is called a POD — for Point Of Distribution of the necessary medicines.

A program overview and planning meeting is set for 6 p.m. Jan. 30.

Koch says she already has 36 organizations enrolled in the program, nine of which are churches, Though the program is not scheduled to get underway until almost a year from now, it could offer various related workshops and services to churches that signal their interest before then, Koch said.

For instance, outreach planned for early next year in Franklin County will likely include life-saving information on opioid use, abuse and treatment, she said.

"This program is health- and life-saving," Koch said of Operation Noah's Ark. "We're targeting churches through Operation Noah's Ark, but it's open to any organization interested in protecting the health and the lives of the staff and any other people there in their organization."

Operation Noah's Ark Program

Ronda Koch, founder of Franklin/Williamson Bi-County Health Department's Operation Noah's Ark Program, shows a map showing how long the line would stretch if the health department had to vaccinate all 107,000 of its area residents, in a 24-hour period, during a public health emergency.  The blue line on the map she put together stretches from John A. Logan College in Carterville and stretches all the way to Shawneetown, in Gallatin County, near the Ohio River.

How the church outreach would work

If there is public health emergency, such as one declared after a bio-terrorism attack, like from anthrax, or a flu pandemic, the health department is under mandate to provide the vaccines within 24 hours of declaration of the emergency. 

The biggest problem facing the Franklin/Williamson Bi-County Health Department is the personnel to complete such an operation, hence Koch's desire to solicit churches and their members to help. Each participating church would be allotted a certain amount of vaccines or medicines for its church population, she said, helping to take a load off the public health workers who would be busily caring for others in the population, she said.

She noted that she has enjoyed good support from church community members in the past; she announced the Operation Noah's Ark program during a recent Church Security Workshop that she partnered with the Williamson County Sheriff's Department recently to host.

Those who are not part of the participating churches will be directed to health department offices and affiliated sites for a dispensing of the medicines, she said.

"Many health departments across Illinois offer this program," Koch said. Those who are curious should contact their local health department to see if it does, she suggested.

"It's a health- and life-saving program in severe public health emergencies," she said. "Organizations, churches, businesses, long-term care facilities and others who are interested in joining this program can be proactive in having the ability to receive emergency medicine in a public health emergency, directly at your facility, instead of having people come to — in our two counties — a 52-mile-long line."

One of the local health departments that does not yet have a church-focused POD is the Jackson County Health Department, although it is open to the possibility, a representative said.

Jackson County Health Department's Closed Point of Dispensing locations are focused primarily on healthcare providers, so they can get critical medications quickly to the healthcare workforce in a disease outbreak situation and continue to serve the public at large, according to Bart Hagston, director of environmental health and emergency preparedness for the Jackson County Health Department.

"However, that is not to say we wouldn’t be interested in working with Jackson County churches on such a program," Hagston said.


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Stephanie Esters is a reporter covering Jackson and Union counties.

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