As federal Covid emergency declaration ends, counties note their role in pandemic fight

Posted 11 May 2023 at 11:13 am

Press Release, NYS Association of Counties

As the federal public health emergency declaration for Covid-19 expires today, the New York State Association of Counties is commemorating the county role in fighting the pandemic while warning of challenges that remain for local governments that continue to experience significant workforce shortages.

“County officials played a crucial role in responding to the public health and economic crisis, working tirelessly to protect residents and preserve our way of life,” said NYSAC President and Clinton County Administrator Michael E. Zurlo. “They kept local services functioning, maintained critical infrastructure, administered elections, provided emergency medical services, and performed other essential jobs, sometimes at great personal sacrifice and risk. For county governments, it truly was both our darkest and finest hour.”

While the end of the public health emergency is a significant milestone, Covid-19 remains a threat. Coronavirus was the fourth leading cause of death in the United States in 2022, and it will likely remain a leading cause of death in 2023, especially for our most vulnerable residents.

Adding to the lingering threat posed by Covid and other infectious diseases is the significant depletion of the public workforce that counties have suffered in the wake of the pandemic, down 3% (40,000 workers) since March 2020.

The drop has been most acute among local health departments. A study conducted by the NYS Public Health Officials Association found that New York State’s local health department workforce saw a 26% decline in the number of full-time staff employed between 2019 and 2021.

Compounding the existing staff shortage, all LHD respondents, regardless of size, reported high impending retirements, with 990 FTEs (almost 10% of the current workforce) planning to retire within the next three years. Since the start of the pandemic, 31% of LHD leaders (Commissioners/Directors) have retired or left their departments.

The end of the public health emergency will have tangible consequences for counties’ ability to respond to this threat. Healthcare providers will have less flexibility, over-the-counter tests will be more difficult to access, telehealth coverage may be limited, and many Americans will see a decrease in social safety net benefits.

“As we close this chapter of the pandemic, we are reminded of the fear, struggle, and pain county officials faced every day at the height of the outbreak and the triumph they experienced in working to protect the public,” said NYSAC Executive Director Stephen Acquario. “Moving forward, counties will continue to innovate and adapt to protect their communities and help them recover from the economic devastation that the pandemic caused. As we honor our local leaders for their courage and dedication in responding to the pandemic, we must also renew our dedication to supporting and strengthening the public workforce, investing in emergency preparedness, and rebuilding trust in our institutions.”