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Public health directors discuss lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic

COVID-19 vaccine
Posted at 11:00 AM, Apr 16, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-28 13:44:58-04

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — County public health directors say they've been preparing to handle a pandemic for years. They said year after year, they submit plans to the state on how they would respond, but those plans were not used in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We're always prepared. I mean before the pandemic we were doing drills constantly. I mean we were doing drills to prepare for how we would set up these vaccine points of distribution. We were ready when it was time," Dr. Gale Burstein, the Erie County Health Commissioner, said.

The health directors said if the state had not disregarded those plans and used them, the response to the pandemic, particularly the vaccine roll out, would have been much smoother. They said they hope in the future the state learns to utilize the county health departments.

"That's what it's here for. That's the way it's set up. We work very closely with the state health department," Christine Schuyler, the public health director of Chautauqua County, said.

"We've been practicing all our lives for this," Dr. Burstein said, "It's what we do all the time. With that practice, we are prepared."

"Ultimately, when we get in situations like this when they're not utilized, it's just going to create chaos and confusion. I'm fully confident when the next one comes, we'll be ready. It's just a matter of up the chain realizing and recognizing the infrastructure they actually put in place with their mandates, grants and requirements to utilize it. It's a simple answer. Utilize the system you've built," Paul Pettit, the public health director for Orleans and Genesee Counties, said.

"Pandemics don't normally happen that frequently. It may happen in another 100 years. Hopefully the next public health director, public health commissioner that comes in 100 years from now will be able to look back at our plans, and they can use those plans going forward," Dr. Kevin Watkins, the public health director of Cattaraugus County, said.

They also said better communication with the Governor's office would be helpful.

"You can't learn something at a press conference with no guidance prepared to go with it or no knowledge that it was even going to happen. As the local health departments, we were just constantly inundated with calls and questions and requests that we had no knowledge of and no ability to answer," Schuyler said, "It didn't have to be this hard."