Connecting and protecting Knox County

  • Published: Friday, March 27, 2020

EDINA, Mo. – Jennifer Eldridge Houser never imagined that her Ph.D. in public health education would be put to such urgent use for Knox County’s 5,000 residents. After years of teaching epidemiology at Truman State University, Eldridge knew just how to respond when a global pandemic put communities across Missouri on high alert.

Even before the state reported its first case of COVID-19, on March 8, she said, “I started listening more and more carefully to the reports, thinking, ‘Uh-oh, this isn’t sounding good. What could this mean for a community like ours? How can we better prepare for what might be coming?’”

It is hard to exaggerate just how interconnected communities and small-town hubs are, said Eldridge, a county engagement specialist in nutrition and health education with MU Extension in Knox County. What affects one institution or service can reverberate throughout the whole county’s economy, health and well-being.

“I decided I needed to get out there and see how extension could help identify our county’s needs and connect people and resources,” she said.

That role is vital, especially now, said Chase Brenizer, an Edina-based insurance executive and an MU Extension county council member. “It’s a struggle not to be able to be out and about. Extension can fill the gaps, reaching out across the county, helping people stay active and safe in their day-to-day lives and keeping the community and neighbors engaged.”

Eldridge checked in with essential businesses across town — the pharmacy, the grocery store, the farm equipment repair and feed stores, and the banks — walking them through simple changes to better protect themselves and their customers while continuing to safely deliver services throughout a pandemic.

She shared Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines like cross-training key employees so more than one person could do every job; maintaining 6 feet of space between customers and employees; and protecting those at high risk. She is now working with the grocery store to put together a corps of volunteers to shop for and deliver food to the homebound.

Edina’s sole health care provider was worried about how patients who were self-isolating or quarantined would receive needed services and how that might affect their ability to comply. In response, Eldridge, with county office manager/youth program associate Crystal Murr and a student assistant, put together 50 packets for the provider to distribute. They included easy-to-read guidelines, self-care and contact information for delivery services and other vital numbers in town. Murr prepared a step-by-step guide on how to apply for Meals on Wheels.

Needs are already growing, Eldridge said. Immediate challenges include speaking with the all-volunteer Knox County Food Cupboard as they rethink the next food distribution. Every month, about 200 families “shop” the pantry’s big warehouse for needed commodities. Such a large gathering — staffed mostly by older volunteers — simply won’t be feasible in early April.

“I am doing my best to share my expertise, which my county seems to appreciate right now — from giving local pastors information about the dangers of loneliness to making sure there is a system for folks to buy feed for their animals, even if the store has to close. There is a lot to do and consider,” Eldridge said.

MU Extension in Knox County also is developing a phone tree to connect town and county leaders and stakeholders.

“At times like this, the county commissioners might need to contact the pharmacy tech; the grocery store or nurse practitioner might need a good traffic or crowd control plan,” Eldridge said. “The area has only three ambulances. Who needs to be able to talk to each other to figure out a plan if that’s not enough? Our ability to connect and coordinate is going to be key in getting us through this. And the good thing is, I find everyone wants to help.”

Photo available for this release:
Jennifer Eldridge Houser, with Truman the Tiger, in October 2019, during her first week with MU Extension. As county engagement specialist in Knox County, she is helping local leaders, businesses and services raise awareness about COVID-19 health and safety guidelines.

Writer: Katherine Foran

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