Lewis approves five new staffers for vaccinations

Watertown Daily Times

LOWVILLE — While hospitals have been implementing the first phases of COVID-19 vaccinations, Lewis County is preparing for the switch of that responsibility to the county Public Health Department in the not-so-distant future.

In the first county Board of Legislators meeting of the year on Tuesday, a resolution seeking approval for funding two more temporary public health assistants, bringing the number of temporary employees up to eight, District 7 Legislator Gregory M. Kulzer said that isn’t going far enough.

“I think we should have been looking to expand it larger. I mean, yes, it’s a cost to the county,” Mr. Kulzer said of public health temporary staffing numbers. “We know it’s going to grow and now they’re talking about a second strain that is more contagious and quicker. We have to be very concerned about being able to handle the extra burden.”

Because new people have to be trained, Mr. Kulzer said he thought it more prudent to approve the positions now so lag time can be reduced.

“Get them trained and ready to go,” he said.

The board unanimously agreed with Mr. Kulzer and the resolution proposed for two new temporary employees was increased to five and approved.

District 10 Legislator Jerry H. King raised the question as to whether or not public health would need more nurses for vaccinations but availability, not financing, is the major obstacle for that level of staff.

“We would love to be able to bring more nurses on board, but as Jerry (Cayer) can attest, the market has pretty much dried up on this,” County Manager Ryan M. Piche said. “We had our last nurse position open for months before we could finally fill it. I think when we finally get to where we really are vaccinating large portions of the public, we’re going to have to look into that.”

He noted that St. Lawrence County is discussing reaching out to retirees and volunteers as are many other counties to fill the need for more nurses, but that community-wide vaccination should not be the responsibility of the health system.

“The hospital has done a wonderful job in a unique situation,” Mr. Piche said. “It’s really not the health system’s job to be out in the community vaccinating people. That is exactly why we have a public health department.”

The case investigation, quarantine and monitoring the spread of COVID-19, which currently occupies the public health team, will still need to continue even when vaccination becomes a primary focus for public health.

In addition to bringing on more temporary staff for the department, Mr. Piche said county employees can help fill some gaps.

“If we pull those 20 (public health) employees off of that and put them on vaccines full time ... the burden of keeping up with contact tracing, keeping up with quarantine and keeping up with monitoring is going to fall to the rest of county government. I don’t have any intention, and I know Ashley (Waite, public health director) doesn’t either, of letting that fall by the wayside, so we need to continue to get the rest of the county government up to speed and trained so we can keep both balls in the air, do two things at once,” he said.

“We’re a large organization. We have the ‘rainy day’ fund. I don’t see any reason why we don’t have the resources and organization to do two very important things at once to keep the public safe,” he added.

At its current size, the public health staff was anticipated to be able to manage about 130 cases of the virus daily, but as of late, Mr. Piche said they have flexed to 180 cases. The five new temporary team members approved will enable the department to meet the increased demand as the virus spreads while the vaccination program continues to unfold.

“There is no doubt in my mind this is not over. The winter has barely begun and, for the large part, our community has not experienced a lot of the pain other communities have.” said Mr. Piche.

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