August 13, 2021
When the schools in Steuben County closed on the evening of March 13, 2020 in advance of the county’s next-day declaration of a State of Emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic, nobody thought the virus would reach the scope it did. As a historical contrast, the most recent pandemic – the 2002-04 SARS virus — infected 8,098 people and killed 774 people across the world during the course of two years. As of Aug. 10, COVID-19 has infected 7,050 people and killed 191 in Steuben County alone in 18 months.
That beyond-belief spread was unknown when county Manager Jack Wheeler declared a State of Emergency on March 14, 2020.
Typically activated during a natural disaster such a snowstorm, the 2020 EOC became the central command center, staffed by the Public Health Director, Emergency Services Director, Deputy Emergency Services Coordinator, county Manager, Emergency Preparedness Coordinator and Public Health Educator.
Schools shut down. Businesses shut down. Everyone stayed inside. And Steuben Public Health stood guard. Then in mid-April, county Public Health Director Darlene Smith received a desperate call. “I will never, as long as I live, forget the day I received a call from a nurse at a Hornell-area nursing home. I did not know her, but she reached out to me hoping I could help,” Smith said. “She called while sitting in her car in the parking lot, on break, and said to me, ‘I’m calling you because I think you might be the only person who can help. Everyone here is dying. They are all dying. I don’t even have a working thermometer on the unit. Please help us.’ That was my darkest day in the past 1.5 years.”
Since nursing homes and hospitals report directly to the state Department of Health (DoH), Steuben’s Public Health was unaware of the devastating spread in county nursing homes, due to DoH’s mandate that nursing homes admit COVID positive residents. The public was stunned. And outraged.
And, led by Smith and county Manager Jack Wheeler, highly vocal. After several late night conference calls between county and state officials and a strong, statewide public advocacy, Steuben became a driving force behind the state’s reversed stance. They saved lives. “The brightest day of the pandemic was in mid-April 2020,” Smith said. “I watched our team of nurses and ServSTEUBEN MRC volunteers pull out of the EOC parking lot in the County’s emergency response Command vehicle to universally swab every single resident and staff person at a Hornell-area nursing home. “I felt like the cavalry was arriving to save the day. Literally. And I believe we did,” Smith said.
Public Health’s determined efforts from the beginning to inform the public resulted in daily – sometimes hourly — reports through the social media, county website and local media. Tens of thousands of people were informed with accurate information on health, safety and prevention. Because of Public Health’s efforts, the public in Steuben County was informed on an unprecedented level about state guidance affecting their health and daily lives, testing sites, and other related information. As the course of the pandemic ebbed and flowed during 2020, the original emergency operations group returned to the EOC twice to facilitate an efficient flow of information and action. Notable efforts by Public Health during 2020 included work on continued phased reopening of businesses across the county including inspection of every single gym and fitness center for compliance to safety reopening guidelines. Public Health officials also dealt with a public becoming more and more frustrated by the length of the pandemic, phased-in testing and restrictions. “The lockdown felt eternal, the PAUSE violations were endless, the phone calls from angry residents who we either quarantined or shut down their businesses were vile,” Smith said.
In September, after extensive consultation with school superintendents school reopened, after a six-month hiatus. Cases began to rise dramatically again, reaching a peak in November and December with confirmed infections and deaths averaging 90-100 each day. In December, Public Health partnered in a wastewater COVID surveillance in Corning, Erwin, Painted Post, Bath and Hornell, collaborating with the Hornell District Office, SDOH and Corning Inc. ** In 2021, Public Health continued to monitor local counts, provide facts from the CDC and advise residents on eligibility for the vaccines. It also opened vaccination clinics in Bath, Corning and Hornell, at schools, businesses and bars and staffed by Public Health nurses and volunteers through the ServSTEUBEN MRC. As the number of people seeking vaccines at those clinics lessened, the department closed those clinics Public Health now has a Friday-only clinic at its offices in the COB, with pop-up clinics scheduled as needed.
2020 Number of positive cases = 3,493
Deemed positive = 2
Deaths = 139
Number of testing Points Of Distribution (PODs) Public Health stood up = 9
Total people tested in PODs = 3,230
Number of test kits supplied to schools, hospitals, and nursing homes = 12,000
2021 (As of Aug. 10)
Number of positive cases = 3,547 (Total since March 2020: 7,050)
Deemed positive = 10 (Total since March 2020: 12)
Deaths = 52 (Total since March 2020: 191)
Number of vaccination clinics stood up by PH = 130
Number of county residents vaccinated by PH so far = More than 14,000
Reflecting on the efforts of her department in 2020, Smith said, “The hardest number to accept is the number of nursing home deaths. So many additional lives were lost due to the failed and tragic policy of requiring nursing homes to accept COVID positive patients, all while COVID positive staff were allowed to work if they did not have symptoms. These two policies were the perfect storm in adding significantly to Steuben’s overall death toll.”
Two other departments were instrumental in the county Public Health Department’s efforts to contain the COVID-19 virus. Partnering with county Public Health, Steuben’s Sheriff’s and Emergency Services offices also provided immeasurable assistance in an all-out effort to maintain public safety: Steuben County Sheriff The SCSO completed the following in 2020 as partners in the COVID-19 response: · Service of Quarantine Notices on behalf of Public Health: SCSO deputies served more than 18,000 quarantine notices in 2020 · Investigation of “PAUSE” complaints: SCSO deputies investigated and educated the public on over 1,000 pause violation reports.
Intervention and education: Sheriff Allard teamed with Public Health Director Smith and County Manager Wheeler to educate business partners throughout the county about safe practices and compliance with CDC/NYS guidelines.
Transport of test samples and security at test sites: In the beginning of the response, SCSO deputies fulfilled the needs of Public Health in stop gapping areas that were not yet in service, such as transportation of samples to test facilities, security at test sites and even transportation and quarantine intervention with exposed persons. · Daily quarantine checks: SCSO officers and deputies who were themselves quarantined or on light duty assignments completed daily phone quarantine checks throughout the pandemic response, often calling over 100 persons per day. · PPE acquisition: SCSO received donations of PPE from area businesses and secured PPE from NYS Department of Homeland Security in addition to supplies received from Public Health. Sheriff personnel were at a high risk of contracting – and potentially spreading – the virus. The office implemented the following safeguards: · Employee screening: SCSO security staff conducted daily screenings on every visitor and employee at the County Office Building complex and the Public Safety Building throughout the response. · Employee testing: After an initial exposure occurred in the jail population, weekly rapid tests were administered by SCSO staff to all employees at the public safety building, until the exposure was abated. · Law enforcement testing: SCSO personnel were available and conducted rapid testing for area law enforcement or first responders post exposure. · Employee vaccination: All employees were continually encouraged and assisted in gaining access to vaccination. · Inmate vaccination: All inmates also were encouraged and assisted in gaining access to vaccination.
Steuben County Office of Emergency Services (OES)
On March 14, 2020, Steuben County Declared a State of Emergency and activated its Emergency Operations Center (EOC) for the COVID-19 Global Pandemic.
The EOC remained active until it was demobilized by county Operations Section Chief Marshall on May 21, 2021.
The State of Emergency was in effect until July 6, 2021, when it finally expired.
Six staff members participated in EOC Activities: Jack Wheeler County Manager and Darlene Smith Public Health Director served as Incident Commanders; Tim Marshall served as Operations Section Chief; Matthew Marmor, served as Planning Section Chief; Ken Forenz served as Logistics Section Chief; and Lorelei Wagner served as the Public Information Officer.
During this time, OES managed the overall County response to COVID handling coordination between hospitals, nursing homes, non-profits, and government entities.
The EOC managed the receipt and distribution of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), testing supplies and testing sites as well as the coordination and distribution of vaccine: Distribution of supplies (all numbers are approximate): ▪ 165 Body Bags ▪ 4,000 Face shields ▪ 44,875 Gloves ▪ 6,000 Gowns ▪ 14,500 Respirators N-95’s ▪ 130,000+ Surgical Masks/Face Coverings ▪ 12,000 Covid Test Kits ▪ Hundreds of gallons of NYS Clean Hand Sanitizer