October 19, 2021

How Cortland is staying healthy

Annual community forum highlights initiatives for well-being

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

Karen Dudgeon, a licensed clinical social worker in Cortland County, talks about the forms of trauma people deal with at the 2019 Cortland Counts. The forum assesses the county’s health and well-being.

In the closing statement of the 2019 Cortland Counts community forum Guthrie Cortland Medical Center President Mark Webster asked the crowd of more than 60 people: “What’s on your to-do list?”

His question mirrored the theme of the three-hour forum on the health and well-being of Cortland County. Topics ranged from addressing trauma to radon in homes.

Jackie Leaf, Seven Valleys Health Coalition executive director, highlighted social determinants of health — how aspects of daily lives have a critical influence on health.

Factors include:

• Economic stability.
• Neighborhood/physical environment.
• Education.
• Food.
• Community and social context.
• Health care system.

For example, adults who are food insecure — lacking reliable access to affordable, nutritious food — are at a higher risk of developing some kind of disease, Leaf said. Or the more education people get, the longer they are likely to live.

“A place that supports health is a place people want to stay and live,” Leaf said.

School readiness

For four years, Cortland Area Communities That Care has been working on literacy in the county, specifically with improving thirdgrade reading scores through attendance, summer learning and school readiness, said Matt Whitman, project manager for the agency.

Schools were already doing a good job with attendance and the community already has many summer learning programs, he said. So the agency focused on school readiness — making sure kids enter school ready to learn; it’s a key predictor of a student’s future outcomes.

“Making sure kids are successful in school is going to determine a lot of their economic outcomes later in life, whether they go to college or whether the go to high school,” Whitman said.

A 2018 study in the county found 53 percent of students were ready to enter kindergarten, down from 56 percent in 2017. It’s a number Whitman said the coalition is trying to improve.

The agency is looking into low-cost interventions, such as using developmental milestones.

That includes recommending certain books a child should be reading, and let parents know what milestone their child should be reaching for and what activities they should do to make that happen.

If parents think their child isn’t reaching the certain milestones, they can talk with their doctor about it, Whitman said.

Local foods

Susan Williams, project manager for Seven Valleys Health Coalition, said a 2018 report showed 38.5 percent of Cortland County students in pre-K through 10th grade are overweight or obese.

That accounts for 54 to 59 percent of total medical costs.

“There are numerous benefits to the outcome of increasing access to healthy foods for our residents,” Williams said.

To help accomplish that, and help people be healthier in general, a local foods-local places action plan — a close to 100-page document — has been formulated.

Its key goals:
• Promote human-powered and public transportation options.
• Reduce hunger and increase access to healthy affordable local food.
• Increase market demand of local foods.
• Build capacity for local foods to stay local.

Work has progressed on each goal. As part of the first goal, the village of Homer, city of Cortland and town of Cortlandville have agreed to have Lime Bikes — a community bike program — come to their area. Also a hunger coalition was restarted.


Cortland County has one of the highest levels of radon in the state, said Derek Green, public health sanitarian for the county Health Department.

Radon is an invisible, tasteless, odorless gas found underground, formed from radioactive decay. It also causes up to 15 percent of cancer worldwide, and is the leading non-smoking cause of lung cancer.

Homes in Cortland County have the highest average basement readings for radon in the state, said Liz Gesin, public health educator for the county Health Department: 14.44 picocuries per liter, more than three times the acceptable level of 4 picocuries per liter.

Exposure only gets worse during the cold weather, when people try to stay indoors, she said.

One thing people can do is get their homes tested. The county Health Department has free radon testing kits to give out to home owners. Gesin said winter is the best time to do the test.

If high levels of radon are found, a radon mitigation system can be installed for between $1,000 and $5,000, Green said. But compared to the risk of getting cancer, it would be worth the price.

Behavioral health and justice transformation

Mark Thayer, community services director for the county Mental Health Department, highlighted what the county does to help people with substance abuse issues, whether they’re in jail or not.

Some programs are still in the works, such as the Angel Program, proposed by Cortland County District Attorney Patrick Perfetti, which would allow people to turn in their drugs and ask for treatment. Thayer said aspects of the program are still being worked out, but he hopes to see it begin this year.

His department has worked with Cortland County Jail Capt. Nick Lynch to bring programs into the jail to help inmates. Thayer said Wishing Wellness helps provide peer services and JM Murray helps provide vocational support.

There has also been collaborations with parole officers to help people on parole reintegrate into the community, including vocational support, behavioral health and other services.

He hopes to see more support for substance abuse services for people in the jail.

“Trying to build support for people has been very important,” Thayer said.