B y PJ Ferguson

 

Washington County officials are working to be “proactive” in response to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic hitting New York, which has become the state with the highest number of incidences in the nation.

While no one has tested positive for the virus in the county yet, there are 2,382 confirmed cases in the state, and 33 people within the county under investigation. The numbers are expected to grow. Nearby Saratoga County has reported three positive cases.

On Monday, Washington County officially declared a state of emergency which will be in effect for the next 30 days or until it is rescinded.

“The State of Emergency allows the county to continue facilitating the ongoing response to COVID-19 and to provide the County of Washington and local organizations with the flexibility needed to respond to this imminent threat to public health, safety and quality of life,” read the county’s press release.

Washington County administrator Chris Debolt introduced policies last week to the county Board of Supervisors to protect county employees as the virus spreads across the state.

Debolt is proposing that county employees who must be isolated or quarantined by order of the Department of Public Health will not utilize their earned-benefit time to cover the “non-voluntary absences occurring pursuant to a formally declared public health emergency.”

Additionally, Debolt suggested that the Board of Supervisors authorize department heads to authorize remote work at their discretion.

If an employee chooses to self-quarantine without authorization from Public Health, there is grounds for termination.

The county is preparing for the worst, with public health officials swamped with phone calls. Debolt received approval from the board to continue conversations with SUNY Adirondack, which has agreed to send qualified nursing students to handle triage phone calls to lessen the load of the department.

One of the county’s biggest concerns is if the virus gets loose in the jail.

Debolt’s plan is to “pool resources with Warren and Saratoga counties” should that occur.

All contact visits between inmates and visitors have been suspended, with the exceptions of attorney/client meetings and parole hearings.

The county is taking an act-first, pay later approach, as federal funds have been stored away in an event of an emergency of this nature. However, it is unknown when the funds will be received.

“How we’re going to pay for it is a consideration for after,” said Debolt.

The county has suspended remote DMV services and access to historian’s and records rooms.

Hartford supervisor Dana Haff

Other services are still available on an appointment basis, you must call ahead to schedule your visit.

The Meals on Wheels program will continue to operate but all congregate senior dining centers and mobile “pop-up” events are closed indefinitely.

Hartford town supervisor Dana Haff criticized the county’s response to the coronavirus in a phone call with the Times, particularly taking issue with the sick-time proposal.

“Very much what the county is doing is an overreaction to an overreaction,” said Haff, describing the pandemic as “dramatic” and “sensational.”

Haff said he disagrees with the county proposing to employees not being required to use their sick time if they are absent from work due to being diagnosed with the virus.

He accused the county of declaring the coronavirus as a “different kind of sick.”

“We’re allotting extra special things,” Haff said, “When I am sick, I use sick time.”

Whitehall town supervisor John Rozell has a different view.

“What are you supposed to do,” Rozell said, “Wait with our hands in our pockets and not be prepared? This is a good start to protect the people of Washington County.”

Whitehall supervisor John Rozell

Rozell said he plans to introduce similar measures at the town level for town employees during their next meeting.

“Even a small community has to pay close attention,” he said, “It is something that had to be done.”

The county will not officially vote on these proposals until Friday’s board of supervisors meeting,but as the virus continues to spread and federal and state governments respond, more measures may have to be adopted.

In response to what the World Health Organization declared a ”global pandemic”, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has taken several measures to reduce the spread of the virus such as closing all SUNY school campuses and restricting the opening of bars, casinos, movie theaters and other avenues that are considered to be non-essential operations.

 

Editor’s note: The confirmed case figures may have changed since publication.

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