The Journal Gazette
Sunday, October 24, 2021 1:00 am

County readies for influx of refugees

Health department scrambling to keep up

DEVAN FILCHAK | The Journal Gazette

More than 300 refugees are expected to move to Allen County in 2022, which would double the highest number of refugees the county has welcomed in one year.

Mindy Waldron, deputy administrator of the Allen County Department of Health, told the County Council late last week about the estimate while asking for two new nursing positions.

The salaries for the positions are not coming out of the general fund, Waldron said, because one salary is covered by a grant and the other will come out of the health fund. She had planned to use the positions for various outreach services, including immunizations.

Once Waldron heard incoming refugee projections, she knew both nursing positions would have to focus on the Refugee Resettlement Program. Most of the refugees are expected to be Afghan.

“There's no choice. This is a federal government move,” she said. “Some of them can come on their own now, so we don't get notice and that's very, very difficult. We're struggling to even stay afloat.”

Allen County is one of the top sites for refugees to relocate as part of a national initiative to resettle those who assisted the U.S. during its 20-year war in Afghanistan, Waldron said. 

The health department, by federal law, is required to provide health care for refugees, including seeing them for the first time within 30 days of their arrival. At this time, the wait is at least 45 days.

“To take on these people, we take on their care. We don't just take on (the requirement to) see them in 30 days, do the tests, do the vaccinations.” she said. “If they come with TB, if they come with HIV, which they do many times, we take that on, and we see them for many years.”

Waldron reminded council members of the shift the department had to do for refugees about seven to eight years ago. Five staff members had to turn their focus to refugee care to keep up.

Even at the height of Burmese refugee migration, the county would see about 125 refugees in a year, Waldron said.

“Doubling those without any (additional) funding is hard,” she said.

The incoming refugees also pose other new challenges for the department. It won't receive the same notice of arrivals or level of medical records.

The department will also face an entirely different language from what it is used to with Burmese refugees and their medical records.

The health department has a part-time doctor who works at the department one day a week. The doctor ends up doing most of her prep work during the night to maximize treatment time during her single day in the office. Times like that help when, Waldron said, “we say we got 18 (new refugees) today, and we need you to see them tomorrow.”

“They tend to just show up,” Waldron said. “It's a significant challenge currently.”

Councilwoman Sheila Curry-Campbell shared her concerns quickly, asking Waldron if she had asked for enough assistance to handle the refugee program. Waldron explained she has been working on the request for a few months and had only just learned of the county's refugee estimate.

“I'll be back,” Waldron said. “It just couldn't be today.”

The deputy health administrator noted she is offering $40,000 a year for the nursing positions, compared with the $60,000 she'd like to offer. Councilman Ken Fries wished her good luck.

Tracy Mitchener, the county's assistant human relations director, said the health department is not the only county department that has had difficulties hiring nurses.

“It's a great challenge,” Mitchener said, “and I think we are going to need to look at that.”

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