Montgomery County

Foss: Montgomery County health chief says compassion is key in this crisis

COVID-19 has thrust public health directors into the limelight like few other emergencies
Sara Boerenko is Montgomery County’s public health director. 
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Sara Boerenko is Montgomery County’s public health director. 

Categories: Fulton Montgomery Schoharie, Opinion, Rising to the Challenge, Special Sections

5:07 a.m.

Sara Boerenko can still recall when the call came confirming that Montgomery County had its first positive case of COVID-19. It was a moment she’d known would come, one she had been planning for since early February.

But the news still caused her heart to sink.

“You say, ‘Here it is, let’s take a moment,’ ” said Boerenko, the county’s public health director. “Then you say, ‘OK, we know what we have to do.’ … You know that if you’ve got one case, it’s only a matter of time before you get two or three.”

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COVID-19 has thrust public health directors into the limelight like few other emergencies.

Boerenko and her team have helped guide Montgomery County’s response to the virus, drawing upon their work protecting residents from a range of health concerns to sound the alarm about the threat posed by the novel coronavirus and educate the public on how to reduce the risk of exposure and slow the spread of the disease.

Since that first case in mid-March, Boerenko has been an effective advocate for social distancing and good hygiene, and speaks passionately about her desire to help the men, women and children who call Montgomery County home.

“The way I’m approaching this is not as a public health official but as a mom,” explained the 40-year-old Amsterdam resident. “I have a 3-year-old. Every decision I make, I ask, ‘How is this going to impact Daniel? What would I want someone to tell me?’ ”

The county’s COVID-19 caseload has steadily ticked upward, and while the numbers — 39 confirmed cases, as of April 15 — aren’t anywhere near what you see in bigger counties, they suggest the virus has a strong foothold in Montgomery County.

To Boerenko, these cases are more than numbers. They’re people.

Rising to the Challenge: Faces of the COVID-19 crisis in the Capital Region

Montgomery County has only recorded one death from COVID-19 so far, but that death was a turning point.

The man who died, retired Amsterdam firefighter Dave Swart, was well-known and well-liked, and helped put a face to a crisis that up until then had mostly been invisible.

“[Swart] started off as patient No. 4,” recalled Boerenko, who combines a laser-like focus on public health with a compassion for others that’s refreshingly down to earth. “Then he became Mr. Swart.” Talking to Swart’s wife, Pam, helped turn him into Dave, a flesh-and-blood person with friends and loved ones.

“I want everybody to look at the 700 people a day who are dying in New York that way,” Boerenko said. “Those people are someone’s mother or father or grandmother.”

Boerenko currently wears two hats. She’s also Montgomery County’s director of community mental hygiene services, a position she took on in 2015.

“When the opportunity to merge my role as mental health and public health director came about, I was interested in the work because as a mental health professional for 15 years, I saw how they naturally impact each other,” Boerenko said. “We know that those with medical issues have a higher propensity for mental health issues, and that those who suffer from long-term mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and schizophrenia have a higher propensity for underlying medical conditions.”

Prior to going to work for the county, Boerenko was a psychiatric social worker for St. Mary’s Healthcare, working in the hospital’s adult behavioral clinic, ER and children’s clinic.

At the children’s clinic, she dealt with Spanish-speaking families, putting her own Spanish-speaking skills to use. Her maternal grandparents were Cuban immigrants who moved to Amsterdam shortly before dictator Fidel Castro took power, and Boerenko grew up speaking both English and Spanish.

“It was something I inherited,” she told me.

Boerenko was raised in Galway, and attended Galway High school before heading off to Marist College in Poughkeepsie.

She was still living downstate in 2005 when she began working with patients impacted by HIV/AIDS at Centro Civico in Amsterdam as part of her master’s degree work. The job was a game-changer. She realized Montgomery County was where she wanted to be, and returned to the area, buying a house in Amsterdam when she was just 25.

Rising to the Challenge: Faces of the COVID-19 crisis in the Capital Region

“I left my life in Poughkeepsie,” Boerenko said. “I left everything. … Montgomery County is my home. I love it here.”

One of the challenges of dealing with COVID-19 is having to postpone or pause the Health Department’s usual services and programs, even though the need for them still exists, Boerenko said.

Addiction hasn’t ceased, but the department is no longer training people to use the life-saving drug Narcan to treat overdoses. It isn’t educating parents about lead hazards in their homes, or identiyfing dangerous crosswalks to paint. Events scheduled for mental health awareness month, in May, have been canceled.

“People are still dying of cancer and heart disease,” Boerenko said. “Babies are still being born. The hardest part is that life is still happening, and people are still dealing with all these other things.”

What hasn’t changed is Montgomery County’s commitment to the people it serves.

“We’re going to be here for residents,” Boerenko said.

Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.

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