TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—The new Department of Whole Health is just a public hearing away from official creation, and that public hearing will be scheduled for early November.

Though the merger between the county’s Department of Public Health and Department of Mental Health was approved by the Tompkins County Legislature in 2019, it was sidelined by COVID-19. It got back on track earlier this year and is close to being completed, and the resolution allowing a public hearing to effectuate the merger was passed unanimously at the legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee meeting on Oct. 17. (The meeting can be watched here, and the agenda can be found here.)

“This is the formal process of actually merging the two departments together, and it creates a single new Department of Whole Health,” Public Health Director Frank Kruppa said, adding that the new department “includes much of the same roles and requirements” that the two departments held previously.

When the merger is finalized under the single new department name, Kruppa’s position title will shift to “Commissioner of Whole Health.”

During the county administration update, Administrator Lisa Holmes said that the county is working on the beginning stages of a strategic plan. She also said that the Human Services Building is working with a private security firm to increase the building’s safety. Some time next month, a grant for $100,000 for veteran peer-to-peer services will be on the agenda for acceptance by the county.

Acitivst Theresa Alt made a public comment in support of the Dryden House Project, saying that she was surprised to find that local taxes don’t help fund the project. On the same topic, a resolution was unanimously passed authorizing the county’s contribution of $70,000 to help fund the Dryden House Project, in addition to $50,000 from the Town of Dryden and $227,000 from the project developer’s privately raised contributions.

Eliot Benman, housing and community development planner, said that the project is a “four-unit permanent supportive housing project in the Village of Dryden for women and children experiencing homelessness.” The project will consist of a new build on the site of existing structures that had previously burnt down.

In a quick update of the recently created Opioid Task Force, Legislator Dan Klein said that the task force has been officially formed and will be coordinating its first meeting shortly.

Harmony Ayers-Friedlander spoke about the need for an increase in early intervention providers, saying that the team currently meets a “broad range of mental health needs from adjustment issues to serious mental illness,” with a team of five psychiatric social workers, a child psychiatrist, a nurse practitioner and social work interns.

The program is currently working with about 300 children, youth and families through both its clinic and elementary, middle and high schools around the county.

Switching gears slightly, to discuss the recent uptick in COVID cases that resulted in the county’s adjustment to a moderate community transmission level, Legislator Veronica Pillar asked Kruppa what the current guidelines for the community are in regard to minimizing the spread and remaining healthy.

Kruppa responded saying that the bump in cases was expected, and that “COVID is not going away.” He added that the total case numbers are rather difficult to get an accurate picture of due to the self-tests that happen daily. Additionally, he said that the main reason for the increase in community transmission level was due to the higher number of hospitalizations, which have since come back down.

The county is still recommending masking indoors for high-risk individuals and seniors, and once back-to-school vaccines are out of the way, the county will likely begin offering COVID booster clinics again.

Code Blue also recently went back into effect due to the season, and 134 adults and 33 children are already in the program, according to Kit Kephart at the Department of Social Services.

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...