ITHACA, N.Y.—A new position is being created within the Tompkins County Health Department (TCHD) as it begins to shift its focus away from COVID-19 and onto other projects.

The new community health worker (CHW) position has been created as a way to encourage relationships between the health department and its services and the community. Community health workers have “traditionally supported marginalized populations to promote and ensure equitable access to public health resources and services,” according to the job description, which can be found here.

During summer 2021, the TCHD tested a pilot program with four public health ambassadors who assisted with the COVID vaccine rollout. “They really served as people who could be out in the community talking with people about the vaccine, answering questions about concerns and making sure people were aware of pop-up clinics that might be easier to access other than the mall site,” Samantha Hillson, director of health promotion, said.

Each of the public health ambassadors in the summer program were from diverse backgrounds and had different interests, which proved useful, Hillson said, when connecting with certain populations around the county. These diverse backgrounds are something the health department will also be looking for in its community health workers moving forward.

“[Each individual] had a different perspective and skills to add to the work we were doing, so that pilot was really successful,” Hillson said, adding that the in-person approach was one that was missing for much of the pandemic and will be used moving forward to get information out and communicate and connect with the public effectively.

Shannon Alvord, TCHD communications coordinator, said that the department has been thinking about adding roles like this since before the pandemic and that the pilot program’s success encouraged the department to move forward with creating a more permanent role. “We needed to have more feet on the ground and we’ve relied really heavily on excellent community partners and organizations to be the feeders of information for us into communities.”

The CHW role has been a tool for health departments around the country for a long time as a way to connect and serve populations with various barriers between them and healthcare or public health services, according to the CDC’s CHW online resources.

Individuals in the CHW role will work directly with the community health services division, specifically with prenatal, maternal and early infancy groups. “There’s a lot of interest in having a supportive role for expecting parents and increasing enrollment in these programs,” Hillson said. “These programs have been on hold for the past year and they’re slowly coming back. Part of it is building awareness about these resources and increasing the number of people utilizing them.”

The health department hopes to hire two community health workers initially, and Hillson said that the roles will be continuously assessed before going back to Public Health Director Frank Kruppa for approval to continue the initiative.

Alvord said that the similar timing of the community health worker role and the health departments’ merger is exciting because the new front-facing workers will not only help with public promotion but also with the philosophical shift the two departments are working toward with “strong stances on a holistic approach to community wellbeing.”

Distinguishing features listed on the job description includes promoting services like immunizations, chronic disease prevention and self-management education, prenatal care and early childhood intervention as well as healthcare navigation, among others, and the TCHD is looking for “the ability to continue building community relationships and the skills and motivation to earn trust with members of our community who aren’t engaging with programs that we have for many different reasons,” according to Hillson.

The health department held a panel discussion March 16 talking about job openings at the mental and health departments which can be viewed here.

The application for community health worker roles closes March 20, 2022, and the TCHD hopes to be training the new employees by the beginning of April.

Zoë Freer-Hessler

Zoë Freer-Hessler is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. She has covered a wide range of topics since joining the news organization in November 2021. She can be reached at zhessler@ithacavoice.com...