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Public Libraries are Feeling the Impact of the Latest Surges

by on January 31, 2022

A January 3rd, 2022, article from WCPO Cincinnati announced new developments at Cincinnati plibraries. From January 4-8, 2022 all branches of the library system modified their hours as a result of extreme staffing shortages. All branches are now open 10AM-6PM Monday-Saturday, and 1PM-5PM on Sunday. When they re-evaluated on January 7th, they extended modified hours. Cincinnati is not alone. In fact, just a couple hours across the state, in Columbus, all 23 branches of the city’s public library system are now closed on Sundays. This decision was made in November of 2021, but as of January 4th, the Sunday closures have been extended.

So what happened? In short, the Delta and Omicron variants of COVID-19 are tearing through the population. If you have been paying any attention to the news or what the CDC and WHO are saying, Delta and Omicron are different beasts. According to the Mayo Clinic, the Delta variant is twice as contagious as some of the variants we saw earlier in the pandemic. Further, it is possible that Delta does cause more severe infections. We have also seen breakthrough cases with vaccinated individuals, but vaccines have protected the vast majority of those who are vaccinated from severe illness and death. Omicron appears to be even more contagious, but it is possible that infections are less severe than what we are seeing with the Delta strain.

It should be noted that “less severe” does not mean this variant isn’t serious.  Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director–general of the World Health Organization (WHO), is quoted in an NPR article: “Just like previous variants, Omicron is hospitalizing people and it is killing people.” Logically, even if mortalities related to Omicron are lower than for other variants, the number of cases is high; there is power in numbers.

Staffing shortages are not the only major news in libraries. Cases are not only going back up, they are setting records. On January 11th, the United States reported 1.35 million new cases of COVID-19, breaking the record for most new cases in a day. With such a severe level of community transmission, access to testing is an extreme concern for many. Libraries seek to increase access by providing free at-home test kits to their patrons. Interpreted a certain way, this falls in line with the American Library Association’s position on Equity of Access:  Equity of access means that all people have the information they need—regardless of age, education, ethnicity, language, income, physical limitations or geographic barriers. It means they are able to obtain information in a variety of formats — electronic, as well as print. It also means they are free to exercise their right to know without fear of censorship or reprisal.

By increasing access to testing, libraries connect their patrons with a valuable resource: the knowledge of whether or not they have COVID-19. Michelle Francis, head of the Ohio Library council, stated: “This is about being a distribution point for a resource that otherwise might not be accessible to certain individuals within our community.” What Francis gets at here is in a way the essence of libraries: we remove barriers to access. The State of Ohio is an example of library systems making rapid testing accessible. According to the Ohio Library Council, since partnering with the Ohio Department of Health in March 2021, libraries have distributed over 2.24 million tests. On January 3, 2022 a branch of the Youngstown and Mahoney County library system took roughly 10 minutes to distribute 4,000 tests.

Nationally, as stated by The Washington Post, “librarians have become the latest front-line workers of the pandemic.” Librarians in Washington D.C. reported lines down the street for testing. Further, public libraries in Boston ran out of tests within just a few days of starting distribution. The president of the Public Library Association, Melanie Huggins, stated: “Most library workers want to be there for their communities. … But with this new surge, we have to balance: Do we have enough staff to open our library safely? That’s the question I hear a lot of libraries talking about.”

If we boil everything down, it comes to this: libraries are at the centers of their respective communities; they are constantly evaluating community needs. Free and open access to COVID-19 home tests is a clear and present need when it comes to community safety.  Libraries seek to fill gaps in community services.

However, we cannot forget that these added services have an effect on library staff as well. Librarians are reporting fatigue and frustration. One D.C. children’s librarian shared: “…it feels like we’ve become too good at our jobs. It becomes, ‘Oh, the library can handle it.’” Interacting with potentially COVID-positive patrons, enforcing masking, and getting medical questions we cannot answer are negatively affecting librarians and library staff. Our mental health is being affected and it is okay to acknowledge that. If you or someone you know needs help, here are some resources:

You are not alone.

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