In late January, before most of us had ever heard of COVID-19, Olmsted County’s Emergency Operations Center—this nondescript, brick two-story on the eastern edge of the fairgrounds—housed a handful of employees in a few occupied offices, and included the U of M Extension and the Rochester Farmers Market.
One of those employees, Capt. Mike Bromberg, the county’s Director of Emergency Management, has spent much of the last dozen years preparing for emergencies he hoped would never happen.
“Usually we’re doing a lot of emergency planning procedures for the county,” says Bromberg, a former Marine who has been with the county for 27 years. “Once our emergency plans are written, we pretty much just dust them off every year or so to update them, and we work on different emergency management products. We also do training for the sheriff’s office.”
COVID-19 was, though, already on his—and the county’s—radar. Olmsted County Public Health had met with him about it, just in case. A quick heads-up on something that no one knew much about, as far as U.S. projections went.
At that point, just two dozen people had been diagnosed in the U.S. By early February, though, Bromberg was meeting regularly with public health. By early March, they were hand-picking a response team.
Today—and it’s April 1, though April Fools Day has been unofficially canceled—the building is buzzing.
Every day now, 100 or so employees from every imaginable county department—Public Health, Purchasing, Health and Human Services, the Sheriff’s office, IT—fill the upstairs offices and the basement meeting room. Numerous others are working remotely.
This building, all of it, is now being used as the county’s Emergency Operations Center.
This team is now the Olmsted County COVID-19 Task Force.
“This is the biggest cross-organizational unit the county has ever put together,” says Bromberg. “We have people three-deep at each position. That way, if we get sick, if our family gets sick, we have two other people that can come in.”
Team members have been working 10- to 14-hour shifts in stretches of nine days on, two off.
Olmsted County moved its Emergency Operations Center offices from the airport to this building in 2007 and, for the past dozen years, the 1,000-square-foot basement conference room has occasionally been used for bigger meetings. Presidential or vice-presidential visits. Planning for government shutdowns. Quick responses to natural disasters.
“When you have a flood or a tornado, you have a problem that you can see and you can bring the right people in the room and go, ‘Okay. We’re going to do A first, B, C, D,’ and away you go,” says Bromberg.
Today, the room is packed—as packed as you can get with any sort of social distancing—with people sitting at makeshift desks making phone calls and discussing the day’s most pressing issues.
A Health and Human Services team is working on concerns from the new warming center at the Civic Center. A task force from the sheriff’s office is meeting about traffic and security issues for the new COVID-19 screening center.
At 2:30 p.m., Olmsted County will be teleconferencing with the City of Rochester to talk about possibly combining resources for their now-separate COVID-19 telephone hotlines.
Case investigators are tracking down recently-diagnosed COVID-19 patients to recreate their movements and follow-up with possible infectees. Someone from Social Services is trying to find a place to live for a COVID-19 patient who can’t go back home, where their elderly parents live.
They are targeting sites that could be used to house patients.
One team is prioritizing resources in the event that Olmsted County loses, say, 25 to 50 percent of its workforce to those sick with—or caring for family members that are sick with—COVID-19.
“How would we as a county provide priority services?” says Bromberg. “We have a matrix where we’ve long identified what’s a priority one, what’s a priority two, a three, and a four service within your division.”
For the Sheriff’s office, for example, a priority one service would be answering 911 calls. A priority three or four service would be serving civil papers.
“So if we’re down on staff, we’re cutting that lower priority to concentrate on more important issues,” says Bromberg. “But we might have a deficiency somewhere, and we’re trying to identify that ahead of time. Who are the three people that can do child protection intake? And if those three people are gone, how do we replace those people? That’s a critical thing. If you’ve got an abused child in a home that has to be removed, just because we don’t have staff doesn’t mean we can put that situation aside.”
For Bromberg, all of that contingency plans, all of those years of preparing for emergencies he hoped would never happen, has paid off.
“We had a framework in place that has made us as prepared as we could be,” he says. “We’ve had to adapt and adjust to the situation, and you cannot really be fully prepared for anything like this. But we pulled different parts from different plans and we’ve had people step up like you can’t believe.”
Sure, he says, they’ve dealt with dozens of major incidents through the years—floods and near-tornadoes and the blizzard of 2018.
“But this is our first time actually in a full activation,” he says. “I’ve been doing this since 2007. Nothing’s even been close to this.”
In that basement meeting room, organizational charts and maps and recently-hung whiteboards—with things like the agenda for the daily command briefing—cover the walls.
A large projection screen rotates through slides showing everything from updated numbers of local COVID-19 cases to weather reports to “Operational Period Command Emphasis” bulletpoints.
One slide simply shows the day and the date.
“So many of these people are working so hard and so many hours and so many straight days,” says Bromberg, “we literally forget what day it is.”