Cortland County will hire six contact tracers to help monitor COVID-19 cases and reduce the strain on the county Public Health Department, legislators decided Thursday night.
“The recent significant surge in cases related to the Delta variant — additionally fueled by less than stellar vaccination rates — has created a large number of phone calls needing to be made, and continues to stress our current staffing capacity,” said interim Public Health Director Lisa Perfetti.
The staffing would cost $3,600 a week for up to 26 weeks, or about $93,600.
Legislators voted, 14-1, to approve the measure. Legislators Linda Jones (U-Homer) and Kelly Preston (U-Homer) were absent, and Republican Conference Leader George Wagner (R-Marathon, Lapeer) voted no.
As of Thursday, Cortland County has 173 positive coronavirus cases and eight hospitalizations. The county was monitoring 568 people. Approximately 61.3% of county residents are vaccinated against the virus.
It’s been all hands on deck since the beginning of the pandemic, Perfetti said. When many programs were put on hold last year, county employees from other departments were able to help with hotline calls, coordinating with local schools and organizing vaccine clinics.
“Now that all programs are back to business as usual, the resources are simply not available right now to keep up with sustaining this response for 18 months and managing this steep surge,” Perfetti said.
The state Health Department had a statewide case investigation and contact tracing team to interview and educate people about how to slow the spread of the virus, however as vaccination rates increased and positive cases dropped in the spring, the team was disbanded.
“I was glad to be done because it was very stressful to speak all day with people who were in fear and in pain, and some who were in desperate need of support services, and others who had just lost loved ones,” said Cortlandville resident Pam Jenkins, a former contact tracer who addressed county legislators Thursday. She is also a candidate for Cortlandville town board.
Although it was a tough job, Jenkins said she knows it is necessary especially now that COVID-19 cases are spiking. Cortland County and most of the rest of New York and the nation have been categorized as a ‘high risk of transmission’ by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Maybe that way we could also keep our schools open and we could keep our dedicated healthcare providers alive and well,” Jenkins said. “Unfortunately, because the virus is still raging through Cortland, we need to try to get it under control — to get people interviewed, monitored, tested and vaccinated so that we break the cycle of transmission.”
Legislators amended the resolution to specify the temporary positions would receive no benefits. The contact tracers will work up to 30 hours per week for $20 per hour through March 23.
“Having the added support for case investigations will help ensure all cases are investigated and that our current staff is able to devote appropriate time to our core functions, essential services and state requirements,” Perfetti said.