ITHACA, N.Y. –– Over a month ago, on March 13, a State of Emergency was declared in Tompkins County — shuttering schools and businesses, all in the effort of slowing the spread of COVID-19 so that medical professionals can meet the challenge of dealing with a novel disease without having to deal with unprecedented demand for medical care.
While an emergency declaration stole the headlines, it was followed by the creation of the Emergency Operations Center (EOC). The EOC has since served as a centralized response group for local officials and continues to address the shifting community needs in the face of COVID-19.
“The EOC gives the County a structure to ensure emergency response and support agencies are working in coordination to meet the needs of our community,” County Administrator Jason Molino, who declared the State of Emergency said.
The EOC is working out of one central location, with desks six feet apart, housed in the Department of Emergency Response, which has a purpose-built space for emergency operations. Heads from multiple county agencies have been pulled from their pre-COVID positions and have taken on new roles and responsibilities within the EOC.
Deputy County Administrator Amie Hendrix was appointed EOC Coordinator back in March, and her team consists of Tompkins County Assessment Director Jay Franklin as the EOC Planning Section Chief, Deputy Director of Tompkins Emergency Response Jessica Verfuss as the Logistics Section Chief, Public Health Director Frank Kruppa as Operations Section Chief and Tompkins County Administrator Jason Molino as the EOC Policy Lead.
“We have really committed and passionate people who have been working in new and different territories” Hendrix said. “I can’t say anything but great things for all the people we’ve pulled from all their different roles to respond to this emergency. They are always on point and easy to contact at any time, no matter what breaks.”
Hendrix said that the work of the EOC has been rapidly evolving since the crisis began, and continues to evolve –– projects sometimes changing moment to moment. She gives the example of creating the COVID testing site at the mall, which was an early focus for the EOC.
“When we started working with Cayuga Health Systems, we identified those sites, moved down that path and then realized that transportation to the site became a barrier as well as making sure that there were security available,” she said. “So it’s popping all of those pieces together to ensure that it happens. Some things pop up throughout the day. Some things we have planned for the day.”
Since March the EOC has worked with multiple community partners in order to craft responses to issues that have arisen. They’ve coordinated with TCAT for transportation to the testing site, with the Foodbank of the Southern Tier to make sure resources are available to those that need them, with the Child Development Council and childcare providers, and mental health and substance abuse providers amongst others.
The EOC has also been in charge of releasing data to the public tracking the local COVID-19 cases. That data has shifted during past weeks, now including hospitalizations and deaths as part of the information being released daily.
Public Health Director and Operations Section Chief Frank Kruppa said the EOC has been extremely thoughtful when determining data released to the public –– balancing transparency with privacy.
“As Operations Section Chief, I am giving the directions to our Chief Information Officers group about what information we want to be shared,” he said. “We’ve tried to provide what we are comfortable sharing to protect the privacy of individuals while meeting the needs of our community for what might be coming.”
Tompkins County has emerged as a regional leader in the response to COVID-19, in large part thanks to the EOC. Together, EOC leadership and Cayuga Health Systems decided to make the COVID testing site at the mall, a regional sampling center for the counties contiguous to Tompkins, helping reduce the burn rate of testing materials and PPE, materials that less-resourced counties would otherwise have to come up with on their own.
“At a time when you’re talking about a public health crisis, a public health crisis isn’t localized, regionalized. It’s statewide, nationwide, it’s global,” said County Administrator and Policy Lead Jason Molino. “So you have to think from that perspective when it comes to the response –– in order to be most effective, when there are instances where we can partner in the future, we must.”
Molino said another example of Tompkins being a regional leader was when Steuben County Administrator Jack Wheeler reached out asking for COVID tests for their vulnerable community members at one of their local nursing homes.
“Within two hours we were able to get them 200 sample kits so they could start testing rapidly,” Molino said.
EOC Coordinator Hendrix said that she is really thankful for the whole emergency operations team in their unprecedented response.
“Their willingness to continue to help support me has been really the key to all of this. It’s been done very fast-paced and learning together and on the fly, as well as working with colleagues across the country to learn from each other…I don’t think anyone has experienced something like this before,” she said.