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The Tompkins County Health Department hired new staff members whose main goal is to prepare the county for vaccine distribution.

December 17, 2020

Tompkins County Health Department Hires Additional Public Health Staff to Aid Vaccine Distribution

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As vaccine distribution in the U.S. slowly progresses, the Tompkins County Health Department has hired a Preparedness Coordinator and Director of Community Health to aid with the county’s COVID-19 contact tracing and eventual vaccine distribution. 

According to TCHD’s new preparedness coordinator, Patricia Mason, aiding the department in distributing the vaccine and planning for COVID-19 is her number one priority for her new position. 

“The vaccine is a tool to stopping this pandemic,” Mason wrote to The Sun in an email. 

In the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which has now taken the lives of more than 300,000 people in the United States, TCHD has also hired Claire Epsey as the director of community health. Both Epsey and Mason recognize that a major part of their new job over the next few months will be the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine.

The Pfizer/BoiNTech COVID-19 vaccine has now been shipped to all 50 states and on Monday, New York administered its first dosage to a critical care nurse in Queens. It does not appear, however, that Tompkins County has gotten the vaccine yet.

“The Health Department is planning and preparing for vaccine distribution,” public health director Frank Kruppa wrote in an email to The Sun. “We are working closely with Cayuga Health System, Cornell, and other local partners. When a vaccine is available, it is likely that emergency medical services, health care workers in a hospital setting, and residents of long-term care facilities will have priority.” 

Kruppa also underscored the importance of people getting the vaccine once available to them. “We need our community to get vaccinated in order to achieve herd immunity,” he said. “For those of us who can, we need to get vaccinated to protect those who cannot get it and stop transmission of the disease.”

Epsey comes to the health department from east Africa, where she focused on maternal child health, water hygiene and sanitation. She believes her experience living and working in east Africa during the Ebola epidemic prepared her for the challenging work ahead on combating the virus in the county. 

“I have experienced first-hand the significant delays and setbacks that can occur in public health crisis response in the absence of strong relationships between the population and the institutions providing basic services, relationships that are based on trust, formed around common interests, and characterized by two-way communication,” Epsey wrote in an email to The Sun.

In her role overseeing community health services, Epsey is responsible for organizing case investigations, contact tracing and monitoring patients as part of the department’s COVID-19 response. 

“My number one priority for this role at the moment is supporting the great leadership demonstrated by our nurses and managers, who are identifying and isolating COVID-19 cases as quickly possible and quarantining anyone who has been exposed,” Epsey wrote. 

Based on her experience in east Africa, Epsey expects false information about the vaccine may lead to fear and resistance within the community. To combat this, Epsey said the department will need to work closely with community partners for a public information campaign.

Epsey also coordinates programs such as the Women Infants and Children program, maternal child health program, safe care program and services including immunizations, HIV and STI testing, lead poisoning prevention, communicable disease response and surveillance at the health department.

Epsey said once COVID-19 is in the rearview, she plans to focus on expanding community health programs particularly with healthy equity concerns in mind, as well as the merger between the public and mental health departments.

Mason believes her experience in emergency management for almost two decades will help prepare her for her new role.

“The safety of the community has always been my focus,” Mason wrote.

In her position, Mason is responsible for updating the public health emergency preparedness plan and working on related programs, such as conducting planning exercises to ensure that the department’s plan is efficient.

The health department is also seeking to hire two new community health nurses, according to the press release.