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Staff sought to aid Health Department

Christine Schuyler, county public health director and commissioner of Social Services.

The Chautauqua County Legislature is being asked to help the county’s public health workers, who are being stretched to the limit.

During a meeting this week of the county Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, Christine Schuyler, county public health director and commissioner of Social Services, provided a draft budget plan, which included adding additional temporary staff. She noted that they have been working nonstop with COVID-19.

“Throughout this pandemic, which has been going on since the very early days of March, we have maximized all of our staff and all of our resources to every extent possible,” she said.

Schuyler noted that they have cross-trained a number of county employees to help the county Health Department. “We’ve had nurses in our CASA unit, federal intervention, a nurse and supervisors, as well as care managers. We’ve had staff from temporary assistance, child support program integrity, Medicaid, child welfare even — you name it. Throughout this time, we’ve had other people help us from everything this time from clerical duties to disease investigation, where they could contract tracing,” she said.

However, with the reopening of county government, many of those individuals have gone back to their original positions.

“That has once again left us with a small staff of burnt out, and overworked and overstressed individuals with just no end in sight,” she said.

Schuyler applauded the county’s Emergency Services Department. “We’ve been able to have the help of paramedics as well as some of their other ancillary staff in being able to do our COVID-19 testing. We couldn’t have done that without them to this point. But they, too, have other jobs that they have to do,” she said.

Earlier this year the county Legislature did agree to the addition of five temporary nurses. So far, the county Health Department has been able to hire one full-time and one part-time.

“We don’t have anymore applications at this time, so we’re trying to recruit,” Schuyler said.

Schuyler said it’s difficult to find registered nurses, especially for temporary positions. She’s also concerned about staffing when the time comes and a vaccine is ready.

“If we don’t get a COVID relief team for the COVID team, I don’t see how we’re going to be able to continue with the burnout we’re facing,” she said, adding that this problem isn’t unique to Chautauqua County.

Committee Chairman Dan Pavlock, R-Sinclairville, thanked Schuyler and the rest of her team for their hard work.

Schuyler said in responding to COVID-19 alone, the department has put in 14,000 hours “and all of our other public health mandates have not gone away.”

The committee adjusted the Health Department’s budget and also agreed to keeping the temporary positions through 2021, with the expectation that the state and/or federal government will be providing additional funding for COVID-19. No dollar figure was attached, leaving it to the Audit and Control Committee to finalize it.

On Thursday, Audit and Control was told by Kathleen Dennison, budget director, that the additional temporary positions proposed by Schuyler would cost $284,000. Schuyler noted that 50% of the salaries would be covered by state aid, due to the declaration made by the state health commissioner of this pandemic being a threat to public health.

Legislator Jay Gould, R-Ashville, asked how the county would budget for more temporary staff. “I want to know where the money’s going to come from and what it’s going to cost,” he said.

Schuyler said because these are mandates, she expects the federal government will assist local governments. “We really don’t have an option to not do these things, so we’re doing the best we can do them but we can’t continue the way that it is,” she added.

Legislator Pierre Chagnon, R-Bemus Point, noted that the federal government may cover the staff through the Federal Emergency Management Assistance or other programs, which could reduce the local share significantly.

Audit and Control Chairman Charles Nazzaro, D-Jamestown, said because it’s unknown what the federal government will do, he did not want to make any budget adjustments at this time. The rest of the committee agreed with him.

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