This is an op-ed from Tompkins County Public Health Director Frank Kruppa. It was not written by the Ithaca Voice. To submit op-eds, please send them to Matt Butler at mbutler@ithacavoice.com.

This week is the two-year mark of the COVID-19 pandemic here in Tompkins County. I want to take this opportunity to thank the community and reflect on the pandemic’s impacts on our community, how far we have come amidst challenges, and how we can be a safer and healthier community moving forward.

Every action, large and small that we have taken collectively, and that you have taken as an individual, have made a difference in how our community has fared during COVID. From actions as simple as wearing a mask as a sign of respect for others to those who helped neighbors and vulnerable community members get vaccinated, your actions have led directly to the safety of one another and saved lives. We may never know exactly how many lives were saved because of the efforts in our community, but our data show that Tompkins County has had a lower death, hospitalization, and positivity rate throughout the pandemic than many of our peer counties. I’m proud that our community approached this crisis with the compassion and determination needed to both stop the spread and support one another.

We have experienced collective trauma and many of us have experienced tragic losses. We navigated ever-changing guidance, and many stepped up to offer mutual aid and assistance. We used all the tools made available to us, including the impressive mass testing and vaccination sites set up locally. Businesses adapted and showed incredible resilience and patience amidst uncertainty. Childcare providers made emergency care accessible for essential workers during the shutdown. Testing and vaccination were brought to homeless encampments and masks, food and other supplies continue to be distributed by food pantries, libraries and other community partners throughout the county. People have been creative, compassionate, and taken precautions despite divisive rhetoric and polarizing issues brought to the forefront during this pandemic.

Our lives look different than they did two years ago, and even the start of 2022 has brought dramatic shifts in our understanding of COVID-19 as a disease and the guidance to stop the spread and decrease hospitalizations. Even as things change and the disease is having less of a direct impact on our lives and decision-making, your Health Department’s commitment to the health and well-being of our community has not wavered. We continue to support organizations, businesses, schools, and individuals, interpret guidance, and communicate information to the public daily about the status of disease in our community. I encourage you to explore all the programming and services we offer in the areas of maternal and child health, children with special health care needs, environmental health issues, health education and community health planning, and emergency preparedness.

As we continue to monitor the disease, I urge everyone to take precaution, especially if they are at high risk for severe illness. The layers of protection that have been recommended throughout the pandemic are still something to use and not lose sight of as we do not know what the future holds for variants and other emerging diseases.

While COVID is not over, we have important work to do as a community to address other complex issues that existed prior to the pandemic and have intensified over the past two years. We must also work to address the structural issues that intentionally disadvantage our vulnerable communities, including People of Color and LGBTQ+ individuals, from accessing high-quality health and mental health care to improve health outcomes. We know the problems and challenges, and we need action.

This year I plan to further commit my time and the efforts of the Health and Mental Health departments to the following areas. We believe that focusing on these priorities will continue to invest in our community’s health and mental health moving forward:

  • Our Mental Health and Public Health departments will integrate into one organization (as approved by the Legislature in December 2019), and our teams will be re-engaged with our Strategic Planning process and model for integration that better reflects our values and meets the community’s needs. The Strategic Planning process explicitly focuses on root causes of health disparities and social determinants of health, putting us on a path to better address inequities for our community, specifically our community members of color. Sign up for email updates from the Health Department by selecting from the Health and Human Services options.
  • Our departments will continue to work with community partners to address the increase in substance use disorders, overdose, suicide, and mental health disorders that impact our community and families.
  • The Health and Mental Health departments will continue to engage with the Reimagining Public Safety planning and the Community Justice Center to take actions on the intersections between public safety, mental health, and public health. Review recommendations, consider making suggestions, and offer ideas on the Ithaca & Tompkins County Reimagining Public Safety website.
  • Our Maternal and Child Health services, including WICMOMs Plus, and Children with Special Care Needs, focus on both fiscal and mental well-being of families and children. These programs are seeing an increase in referrals, and I encourage expectant parents, families with young children, and families with children who are having developmental delays to connect with their health care providers and reach out to our programs. The Mental Health Department has trained therapists for children, youth, and families who are embedded in some of our schools as well as available for appointments at our offices.
  • Our Health Department continues to monitor emerging and ongoing environmental health issues, including but not limited to child lead poisoning prevention, rabies prevention, drinking and recreational water safety, and wastewater treatment. Remember to get children screened for lead poisoning at ages 1 and 2. Contact your pediatrician for more information.

As we mark this two-year anniversary and as our focus shifts from emergency COVID response to recovery, I hope the community will take the same energy and urgency that made us successful with COVID and put it toward other pressing public and mental health issues. As a community, we have proven that by working together we can do what is necessary to protect each other. Let’s carry that momentum forward to the other pressing issues impacting our health and wellbeing.