CRAWFORD COUNTY - There’s many people who would say that public health departments would be good candidates for ‘2020 Citizens of the Year,’ along with all of our frontline health care workers. There’s no question that the global COVID-19 pandemic dominated 2020 and turned it into a year that few will forget, even if they want to.
In Crawford County, Public Health Director Cindy Riniker, has led a dedicated team of public health employees in working to keep citizens in our county safe and healthy.
“Citizens, elected officials, school districts and business owners in our county have been very open and supportive in the fight against COVID-19,” Riniker said. “It has been a hard year for public health employees. Statewide, we’ve lost a few in response to public sentiment against public health measures, and most departments are experiencing some degree of burn out.”
Riniker said that one good thing that has evolved out of the crisis is a greater cohesion of all stakeholders in the county.
“We’ve had to learn who the key stakeholders are in our community and develop systems to work together to promote public health,” Riniker explained. “In the course of doing that, we’ve developed good working relationships that will carry us forward into the future stronger than we were when we went into this crisis.”
Riniker went out of her way to praise her staff, who she said have been key to her department’s successful efforts.
“We have supported each other through all the ups and downs of this public health crisis, and gotten closer, like a family,” Riniker said. “We’ve all had moments where it has felt overwhelming, but we’ve always rallied around each other.”
Other members of the department include Michelle Breuer, BSN, RN, Lisa Cummer, BSN, RN, Sonya Lenzendorf, Public Health Educator, and Sharon Steele, Administrative Assistant. In addition, the department was recently able to hire five new staff for the purpose of COVID contact tracing.
The week of January 11 marked a significant turning point for Crawford County in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. Crawford County Public Health Department was able to conduct their first vaccine clinic for unaffiliated health care providers and some first responders.
“I am just about giddy with relief,” Crawford County Public Health Di-rector Cindy Riniker said. “I finally have a sense that there is light at the end of the tunnel.”
For many citizens, their county public health departments were an appreciated, but somewhat invisible, department in their county’s bureaucracy. One might hear a little bit from them when the cold and flu season hit, and at various times when they were promoting their services or healthy lifestyle initiatives.
That all changed in 2020, when public health came into the limelight, front and center. Citizens followed developments in growth of COVID-19 cases weekly and daily, cringed to hear about new deaths, and waited hopefully to see when the reports might start to indicate that things could get back to normal.
Riniker’s department has had all the same challenges that health departments all over the nation have had, and a few benefits that come from being part of a supportive local community.
“There’s no question that from the start of this health crisis, our biggest challenges have been with available funding for our increased responsibilities and adequate staffing levels,” Riniker explained. “Public health has seen lots of budget cuts in recent years, and that really impacted our ability to respond to this situation.”
Riniker also cited a lack of timely guidance from federal and state officials as being a challenge for her local team.
“In a lot of instances, my department learned of new developments in managing the pandemic at the same time as the media did,” Riniker said. “When we are putting out mixed messages, or not getting out in front of the communication about changes, that can damage our respect in the community.”
On the other hand, Riniker acknowledges that federal and state partners are likely experiencing all of the same challenges as local health departments in terms of guidance, resources and staff.
“I think we’re all in the same boat in terms of our preparedness to handle this public health crisis,” Riniker said. “Any lack of clarity from our state partners stems from lack of clarity from their federal partners.”
Riniker said that the biggest advantage her team has had in tackling the public health crisis has come from support in the community, and from being able to hire extra staff.
“The leaders in our communities in Crawford County have been so good when we have had to ask for extra help or assistance,” Riniker said. “Our law enforcement partners have been great to work with, and we have received many community donations to help us fund our various public outreach campaigns.”
Riniker in particular cited the Prairie du Chien Rotary Club, the George Foundation, and the Prairie du Chien Fire Department for donations which helped fund the department’s billboard campaign encouraging mask wearing. She thanked the Wisconsin National Guard and the Gays Mills Fire Department for their assistance in running community testing events.
Riniker had a lot to say about the excellent relationships she has developed with staff at the county’s four school districts.
“I have a monthly meeting with the superintendents of all the schools, and we have contact with each other on a weekly basis as well,” Riniker said. “The schools have really taken the public health effort seriously, and this has resulted in our schools being safe places for our students to continue to learn.”
While the distribution of vaccines has had its starts and stops at the state and federal level, Riniker believes that as vaccines become available to the county, her department will be able to get a lot of shots in arms in the county.
“Eventually, when vaccine availability permits and state and federal guidelines allow, we plan to open up mass vaccination sites around the county,” Riniker said. “I am looking for places where we have lots of room to provide for social distancing and accommodate a lot of people in the most efficient way possible.
For this reason, Riniker is looking at school gymnasiums or other venues in the community that offer larger spaces. Right now, she is thinking of Prairie du Chien and North Crawford gymnasiums and Century Hall in Wauzeka. A location in Seneca has yet to be determined.
“We have also been working with individuals that have received the vaccine to report on their experiences, in order to inspire public confidence in the vaccines,” Riniker said. “Members of the Prairie du Chien Police Department that have received the vaccine are reporting their experiences with it on social media. We need to provide images and testimony from role models in the community so that our citizens will understand that the vaccine is safe, and that it is urgent to vaccinate as many people as possible as quickly as possible.”
Riniker hopes that vaccine supply will allow these mass vaccinations to begin in February and March. She says that her department will also launch a public education campaign that will include billboards in February and March, weekly articles for the newspapers, radio public service announcements and interviews, and blogs on social media.
Riniker grew up on a dairy farm in rural Clayton County, Iowa. where her parents, Ira and Marilyn Voeschell, milked a herd of 30-32 cows. She was one of four girls born to the couple.
“You could say that I grew up as a dairy maid,” Riniker joked. “But really, my sisters and I grew up helping with all aspects of the farming, from milking to making hay to field work to manure management.”
Today, Rinker lives with her husband of 22 years, Tim Riniker, on a farm in rural Elkader, Iowa. The two sold their dairy herd in 2005, and Tim Riniker now works in logging. The couple has four children, and five grandchildren, ranging in age from seven months to six years of age.
Rinikers children include Jeremy, a business owner in Elkader; Cheryl, a paramedic working for Tri-State Ambulance in Prairie du Chien; Tyler who works at Hy-Vee in Cedar Rapids; and Jacob who is living at home and studying nursing.
Riniker was hired as Crawford County Public Health Director in May of 2018. Her work in the county is the continuation of a career approaching 30 years in nursing and public health.
Before coming to Crawford County, Riniker worked as a certified nursing assistant in Elkader while she was in high school, and as a nurse at the Guttenberg/Postville Nursing Home. After graduating from college, she worked for the Clayton County, Public Health Department for 25 years, with a combined public health and home health role.
“When I was initially hired by Clayton County, having worked in the private sector before that, I didn’t totally understand what public health really was,” Riniker said. “But in the course of my work in Clayton County I developed a deep love for public health and my co-workers there mentored me well.”
She attended Central Community High School in Elkader, Iowa, and obtained her Associate Registered Nursing degree from Northeast Iowa Community College. She went on to obtain a bachelors degree in nursing at Viterbo University in LaCrosse, and a Masters in Public Health from Purdue University Global.
“When I started my job in Crawford County, the kinds of issues I envisioned as being most important for my work were mental health, healthy lifestyles and obesity, immunizations – all the standard things,” Riniker said. “Now all of that has had to be put on the back burner while we battle the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Riniker said that before the COVID crisis struck, she had been very excited when the department was able to hire Sonya Lenzendorf as a public health educator.
“Sonya was really starting to get some good things going in the county, like the ‘Crawford County on the Move’ program before COVID hit,” Riniker said. “And while Sonya has kept that initiative moving forward, she has had to set aside some of her public health education goals to join the rest of our team in the COVID effort.”
Riniker expressed that she and her team are as eager as anyone else in the community to put COVID behind them and get back to focusing on all the other public health goals that are out there.When asked if she thought the experience would mean her team was better prepared for the next pandemic, Rinker responded, “yes, but I hope it doesn’t come until after I retire – it has truly been exhausting for me, my department, and everyone in our community.”