New City, NY, – Rockland County Executive Ed Day and County Health Commissioner Dr. Patricia Schnabel Ruppert announce the latest update to the #PublicHealthIsHere4U media series, which highlights local COVID-19 public health efforts that are keeping our community safe. The series highlights county employees and volunteers that have come together to help battle this disease through the implementation of public health measures.
Today’s #PublicHealthIsHere4U update features the essential public health role of COVID-19 Operations while maintaining basic environmental health functions to ensure the community’s safety.
Sam Rulli, Director of the Center for Environmental Health at the Rockland County Department of Health, oversees a team of 34. They work on a variety of environmental enforcement programs, including food safety, children’s camps, swimming pools, solid waste programs including flow control and hauling permits, rabies, tanning, mosquito/vector control and surveillance, wastewater and realty subdivisions, and radiological response. Since the pandemic began, about 75% of the environmental health staff has shifted their day-to-day responsibilities to COVID-19 activities.
Early into the pandemic, Sam took on the role of Operations Section Chief as part of the Incident Command Structure (ICS) to relieve some of the burdens of staff in the Department of Health’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention. This role allowed subject matter expert employees to focus on more direct needs. Environmental health staff participates in many response levels including ‘Operations’ (case investigations, oversight of the county’s COVID-19 Call Center, and enforcement of Executive Orders), ‘Planning’ (the distribution of the daily “Incident Action Plan”), and ‘Logistics’ (communications and transportation of supplies). While the safety of the community and the environment is still ensured, and active monitoring and response to complaints still occur, many regular and regulatory duties have also been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic to allow staff to spend additional time assisting with the COVID-19 response.
“When the Department of Health implemented the Incident Command Structure (ICS) to begin its response to the COVID-19 crisis, environmental health staff quickly mobilized to fill support roles that staff had practiced during emergency preparedness drills. Due to the high volume of cases and the impact on the larger community, the environmental health team has been immersed in emergency operations alongside the rest of the department to support an emergency of this scale. Staff around the department have stepped outside of our comfort zones and areas of expertise to help,” said Sam Rulli.
By far, COVID-19 case investigations and contact tracing have been the most time consuming and largest effort of the Health Department during this pandemic. As cases peaked, the Health Department solicited assistance from various county departments and volunteers. These included the Sheriff’s Office, Probation, District Attorney, and staff from local police departments. We are currently seeing a decline in the number of COVID-19 positive cases.
As the county begins to re-open, a robust contact tracing initiative in cooperation with New York State is being implemented to help prevent the virus from rebounding. Contact tracing involves not only reaching each and every case for an interview, as we had been doing, but also reaching out to every person they have been in contact with and then performing daily monitoring of each case and contact until they are out of isolation or quarantine. The magnitude of contact tracing at this scale will take an “army” of contract tracers that you are hearing about in the news. Operations staff are focused on implementing this effort at this time. This strategy of focusing resources on the sick and exposed will be essential to keeping the virus at bay. Contact tracing will only be as effective as the public is in participating in interviews and following isolation and quarantine orders. We encourage residents to answer the phone and cooperate with our case investigators and contact tracers to help protect themselves, their families, and our communities.
“There have been no typical workdays since COVID-19 began spreading in Rockland. We all try to stay flexible and adapt to the new challenges and needs each week brings. The routines that are typical for me involve holding daily meetings to keep operational units informed and coordinated with each other, keeping the ICS informed of operational updates, assisting with new challenges, and facilitating changes or expansion in operations. All of our efforts are intended to keep residents informed and safe,” said Sam Rulli.
As the summer approaches, Environmental Health staff will once again focus on seasonal services for mosquito control, children’s camps, communal pools, as well as outdoor dining as restaurants begin to open under Phase 2. The regulatory oversight of facilities will be more complex for this season to ensure safety and keep COVID-19 cases from rising again. Environmental staff will work with operators to provide guidance to ensure best practices are followed.
“Most staff are settling into the changes that the pandemic has brought to our professional and personal lives. It is still a struggle for all of us as it is for everyone in our communities. We all need to continue to focus on the safety of our staff as well as our residents. Early in the pandemic, many of us were fearful and concerned about our personal safety, and I sense that it has waned in some of us. It will be important not to let our guard down at work or at home to keep everyone safe,” said Sam Rulli.