Local health departments strapped

The pressure on all of us during the pandemic is obvious, from hospitals to grocery stores. But, with resources getting more and more scarce, government’s ability to provide basic services is getting stretched to the limit. Now, the people in your local municipal health department, who inspect the bodegas and run the local clinic, are expected to be front line defenders against a global pandemic.

“There’s a whole new workload that’s come on, so not only are they having to do these things like pool inspections or restaurant inspections but they also have to do contact tracing. They have to investigate outbreaks in nursing homes. And depending on the size of that local health department, they might have vastly different resources available,” said ProPublica senior reporting fellow Sean Campbell.

Reporting for ProPublica, Campbell and Joshua Kaplan met with more than 30 health directors, local officials and health care leaders around the state and found that most of them were having to respond to the pandemic with little guidance or support from the state.

“We’ve talked to some departments where they’ve not actually been able to literally do contact tracing so far. Their small staff has been entirely consumed with just calling the people who tested positive,” said Kaplan, a senior reporting fellow. “They just tell the people who they’re calling to tell who they’ve been in contact if they need to quarantine.”

In North Bergen, population 63,000, health officer Janet Castro, who serves several towns in North Hudson, says necessity is proving to be the mother of invention in these unprecedented times, where everyone is writing the playbook in the middle of the game.

“We have guidance from them on how to do certain things, but they understand that we don’t have the resources to do it exactly the way we’d all like to do it,” said Castro. “We’ve become logistical personnel, trying to figure out what works, what doesn’t work. Nurses going in there, handling specimens, labeling specimens, transporting, so we’re just jacks of all trades right now.”

In Jersey City, population 260,000, health department director Stacey Flanagan says resources would be great, but a free hand in handling the pandemic locally is just as critical.

“While we’ve never been prepared for this, many of the staff have been through Sandy, have been through 9/11, have been through different things in their career that has just made them more prepared for this work,” Flanagan said.

Until such a time as municipalities get some federal help, or find some extra cash lying around, the new normal around is going to be training – and retraining – to fit existing staff into new roles, while trying to maintain non-pandemic services that are already in high demand.

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