Montgomery presses for details about response
When COVID-19 cases began to rise, clashes among elected officials about Putnam’s response soon followed.
From Philipstown came questions and a call for the removal of the county health commissioner. From the eastern side of Putnam, praise more often rang out, albeit concerns surfaced, too.
Meanwhile, cases continue to climb.
In a briefing for the Putnam Legislature’s Health Committee on Wednesday, Dr. Michael Nesheiwat, the county health commissioner, reported that Putnam had more positive cases in November than at any month during the pandemic. The daily positivity rate has risen from 1.8 percent on Oct. 31 to 9.1 percent on Dec. 9.
The state updates Putnam’s testing numbers daily on its online dashboard but the county only shares more specific detail, such as the number of new cases in each town, once per week. The county reported 153 active cases on Dec. 3 and 19 new cases in Philipstown, 164 in Carmel, 73 in Kent, 57 in Patterson, 36 in Putnam Valley and 93 in Southeast. Thirteen people were hospitalized at the Putnam Hospital Center in Carmel as of Dec. 3.
Since mid-November, Legislator Nancy Montgomery, who represents Philipstown on the nine-member county Legislature and is its only Democrat, has pressed the county administration for details on its anti-COVID efforts.
“What plans are being put in place to deal with the coming surge of cases?” she wrote to County Executive MaryEllen Odell and Nesheiwat on Nov. 18, when the positivity rate had topped 5 percent. She likewise wondered about implementing “a full shutdown similar to earlier in the year.”
Six days later, while acknowledging that county officials “want to provide answers and guidance to an anxious public,” she urged Putnam to “expand testing so we have data faster. A single testing site is not enough,” she said, and “the only way that we keep schools open is to provide testing.” She suggested Putnam emulate Ulster County, which transformed a bus into a mobile testing unit, staffed by public health nurses, to conduct rapid testing.
On Nov. 23 Legislator Joseph Castellano of Brewster sent his own memo to Nesheiwat and Odell, citing public worries. “Would it be possible to have more testing available for these residents?” he asked.
Nesheiwat informed Castellano on Nov. 24 that the county Health Department is in frequent contact with the state and with public school officials on such matters as testing. However, in fighting COVID-19, “the main method of mitigation we employ is through case investigation, which enables us to identify contacts that will subsequently be notified by state contact tracers and informed about quarantine measures,” he said.
The health commissioner emphasized that the public must do its part. “Putnam County has seen a sharp rise in positive cases related to social gatherings and parties,” he wrote. “The spike that is occurring locally is a result of our actions. Whether you are in closer proximity to Brewster, or you are farther west, nearer to Peekskill, it is clear that our numbers are rising, and we all must make responsible choices to keep our families and our neighbors safe.”
In a Nov. 30 memo, Montgomery referred to a “void of information sharing” and told Odell and Nesheiwat that her constituents, like Castellano’s in Brewster, are uneasy. “They want to know what we, as a county government, are doing and what measurable actions and innovations we are taking to keep our schools and economy open,” she said.
When the county Legislature met by audio connection last week, Legislator Neal Sullivan of Carmel-Mahopac said COVID has lasted longer “than I think any of us initially thought” likely. He thanked Nesheiwat and the Health Department “for everything they’ve been doing, working extremely diligently to take care of the residents of Putnam County.”
But Montgomery said public concern continues over “what we as a county government are doing.” Yet, she said, her questions, including whether the Health Department has adequate funding and staffing, have been disparaged as “attacks” and as “a waste of time.” However, she said, “it’s not attacks” but part of a legislator’s job to seek and provide information.
Other legislators promptly shot back. Amy Sayegh of Mahopac, who chairs the legislative Health Committee., said that “the county is doing a damned good job during the pandemic” and that for Montgomery “to belittle or belabor or beat down our Health Department, who are working overtime in this pandemic, is very insulting.”
Legislator Ginny Nacerino of Patterson similarly rebuked Montgomery. “It’s fortunate, I guess, that out of nine legislators the other eight don’t have the same issues,” she said.
That evening, the legislators unanimously authorized a $30,000 fund transfer for the Health Department. According to the resolution approving the move, the money is for overtime costs for, “specifically, the nurses involved in case investigation, due to the overwhelming increase in COVID-19 cases in Putnam County.”
During his Health Committee briefing on Wednesday, Nesheiwat outlined services at Putnam Hospital Center, in Carmel, part of the Nuvance system, which also runs Vassar Brothers Hospital in Poughkeepsie. He serves on the Nuvance board of directors.
Nesheiwat said that Putnam Hospital has opened a COVID-19 section “in the event we have a surge” and a testing facility where anyone, with symptoms or not, can get a COVID test, although a doctor’s prescription and appointment are necessary.
Kathleen Percacciolo, a county public health nurse, added that the Health Department doesn’t “have the capacity to do testing because we do not have the staff” or lab facilities for COVID analysis.
“It’s alarming we can’t provide testing,” Montgomery commented.
Nesheiwat promised to check to see if there are possible test providers in western Putnam.
But Sullivan cautioned Nesheiwat that “it’s not up to you and your staff to be able to perform testing. That’s not your role.” He observed that the state operates a test site near Bear Mountain, “close to” Philipstown (but across the Hudson River). Thus, Philipstown residents “are being serviced and supported as much as anybody in the county,” he said.
Sullivan again lauded Nesheiwat and the Health Department “for herculean efforts in trying to get this pandemic under control and take care of our residents.”
In Philipstown, Supervisor Richard Shea shared a different perspective at a Town Board meeting on Dec. 3. Expressing frustration with Putnam’s priorities, he mentioned its decision to spend $45,000 on consultants to study the Sheriff’s Department, instead of using the money for anti-COVID-19 initiatives, such as better public information.
Shea, who, like Montgomery and Putnam County Sheriff Robert Langley Jr., is a Democrat, attributed the choice to “politically driven” thinking before the 2021 sheriff’s election. “These people have nothing better to do than hammer the political thing,” he claimed. “It’s really awful. It’s the same every day with the county executive and county health commissioner, who should be fired tomorrow. We’re getting nothing.”