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CAYUGA COUNTY

Cayuga County Health Department faces 'huge challenge' as COVID work overwhelms staff

Mall Vaccine Clinic

People receive the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at a Cayuga County Health Department vaccine clinic at Fingerlakes Mall March 11.

To highlight the caseload her staff is facing, Cayuga County Public Health Director Kathleen Cuddy shared a statistic with legislators on Monday. 

Shortly after the Cayuga County Health Department reported 91 new cases in three days, Cuddy told the Cayuga County Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee there were 115 pending cases that haven't been contacted to be admitted into isolation. 

"As soon as you do some, more come in," she said. 

This isn't the first time Cayuga County has dealt with a sizable spike in COVID-19 cases. But the health department doesn't have the same staffing levels it had in December and January when there were more than 4,000 confirmed cases. 

It also doesn't help that, this time around, there was no buildup. The recent surge began in August and new cases skyrocketed. After 72 in July, there were 747 in August. Cayuga County already has 369 new cases in September, putting it on pace for more than 900 this month. 

After cases dipped to a nine-month low in June, there was a lull, Cuddy said. Some of the employees hired to handle contact tracing work moved on to other jobs. 

"We're trying to bring people back in, and we are," she said. "But you can't respond as fast as the need is sometimes." 

There is a lot of COVID-related work for the health department. When there are positive cases, the department handles the case investigations and identifies contacts who should quarantine after being exposed to the virus. Contact tracing is time-consuming work. Cuddy said the health department recently hired a public health educator to handle various duties, including working with schools and handling the dissemination of public information on social media. But most of the employee's time has been spent on COVID case investigations. 

That's an example of how health department employees have been overwhelmed by the COVID-19 workload. Cuddy explained that there is everyday work the department needs to do, whether it's focusing on other communicable diseases, early intervention or water quality issues. 

Because of the uptick in COVID-19 cases, the health department is operating seven days a week. Cuddy told legislators that she is "really conscientious that we need to really stick to hours to preserve our own staff." She mentioned conversations she's had with some employees telling them that they can't work seven days a week. 

"It's a huge challenge right now," she said. 

Cuddy's description of the situation adds important details to what was outlined in the health department's situational update on Monday. The department informed the public that there is a four- or five-day lag in contacting people who test positive for COVID-19 and need to be enrolled in isolation. School-aged children are being prioritized in the case investigations. Cuddy said this is to ensure that school spaces remain COVID-free. 

The health department also hopes to prevent more infections by getting more residents vaccinated. The department-run vaccination clinics aren't immune from the staffing woes. Cuddy revealed at Monday's meeting that the department hadn't filled its roles for a clinic held in Moravia on Tuesday. 

The department, according to Cuddy, needs vaccinators and other personnel who can staff the clinics. 

"We need people," she said. "We are trying to recruit more case investigators and we are trying to recruit people to work at clinics. We will pay them ... We're willing to train you." 

In other news

• Cayuga County reported 60 new cases on Monday and 22 COVID-related hospitalizations. The patients include one in their 20s. Most of the patients are age 60 and older. 

• A walk-in vaccination clinic will be held at 3 p.m. Wednesday at Scipio Fire Department, 3550 Route 34, Scipio Center. The Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer vaccines will be offered at the clinic. 

Politics reporter Robert Harding can be reached at (315) 282-2220 or robert.harding@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @robertharding.

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Online producer and politics reporter

I have been The Citizen's online producer and politics reporter since December 2009. I'm the author of the Eye on NY blog and write the weekly Eye on NY column that appears every Sunday in the print edition of The Citizen and online at auburnpub.com.

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