LOWVILLE — Even though free public COVID-19 testing came to a sudden and unexpected halt in Lewis County two weeks ago, Public Health leadership is working to organize funding to get that back online and to put more programs and personnel in place.
On July 15, the Lewis County Health System notified the public that the free drive-thru COVID-19 testing site that opened July 20, 2020, in partnership with the state Department of Health, was closing as of the following day, but they would be seeking funding to reopen the site as soon as possible.
Health system Chief Executive Officer Gerald R. Cayer said the state ended the program, and therefore the free testing partnership they had formed, much sooner than anticipated.
“One month ago we were told (by the state) the program would end on Sept. 30,” Mr. Cayer said via email, adding that about two and a half weeks ago, “we were told the partnership would end on Friday, July 16.”
According to the news release on the closure, 11,200 COVID-19 tests were administered at the Maple Ridge Center site.
Getting the site up and running again is a priority for the county.
With part of the $1.1 million in federal funding dedicated to ensuring children are able to continue in-school learning despite the ongoing threat of COVID-19, Lewis County Public Health Director Ashley R. Waite plans to restore COVID-19 testing at Maple Ridge through an agreement with the health system at an estimated cost of $641,160 for 52 weeks.
“This is the only opportunity we have in Lewis County for testing, so another part of this funding would be to continue that free community testing, giving both students and staff access to that testing as well as the rest of the community,” she said. “If we’re controlling COVID in the community then we’re controlling it in school, keeping those kids in in-person learning.”
Mrs. Waite also hopes to create a position for a new deputy health director who will act as the main liaison for schools on COVID-19 related information and activities. She has also planned for the purchase of a mobile testing trailer.
To date, Public Health has been using the Emergency Response Department’s trailer for testing symptomatic individuals needing a COVID-19 test and for bringing testing to communities that may be experiencing a spike in cases, Mrs. Waite said.
This funding stream, which began July 1, will last until July 31, 2022.
Epidemiology and Laboratory Capacity Funding totaling $468,000 is also available to Public Health.
Mrs. Waite hopes to use this funding stream to create a new Public Health nurse position so the person can train with the current communicable disease nurse who will retire in two years.
The funding will also be used for a one-time overtime payment for a number of employees who are normally exempt from earning overtime for the many extra hours they worked “going above and beyond” between July last year and June this year. These employees worked on contact tracing, testing and vaccination for COVID.
In addition, money from this fund will be used to cover pandemic-related overtime costs for her staff and temporary workers that are above her state-funded annual budget for the department.
Fifty-thousand dollars of this money will be used for wastewater testing for municipalities interested in participating.
The technique, which is already being used by Jefferson County and Fort Drum, can pinpoint one case of COVID-19 in 10,000 people, making it an indicator of “what is yet to come,” according to Mrs. Waite.
“When you start to see high levels of COVID-19 in wastewater, you’re about two weeks away from a spike in cases,” she said.
Areas that do not have a central wastewater system cannot benefit from the testing.
“It’s not a perfect system but it’s another piece of information we could use to predict when we may see a spike in cases,” Mrs. Waite said.
Since the pandemic began, Public Health has spent a total of $812,801 — $372,211 in the first half of this year and $440,590 in 2020, according to information provided by Mrs. Waite at the meeting.
Staffing for pandemic-response activities including temporary staff and overtime for existing staff, administrative expenses from postage and printing to additional cellphone and tech costs, advertising, rent for the Maple Ridge Testing site and “wrap around services” for people who were put in isolation or quarantine because of the virus were the sources of expenditures.
Mrs. Waite explained wraparound services include providing a person in isolation or on quarantine what they need but cannot go out to get themselves, for example groceries or a pharmacy visit.
State aid provided the majority of the funding used by Public Health, totaling $636,017, while various grants accounted for $205,312.
All plans for the two new funding sources are contingent upon state Department of Health budget approval.