Foss: Why is Schenectady County health director out?

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Categories: News, Opinion, Sara Foss

I don’t know why Lisa Ayers is out as Schenectady County Director of Public Health. 

 

I don’t know why county officials might have pushed her to retire, or demoted her when she declined, which is what her attorney, Kevin Luibrand,

claims happened.

But, boy, do I have questions. 

So many questions.

Such as: Why, in the midst of a pandemic, is Schenectady County now without a public health director? 

Public health has never been more important than right now. We’re learning new things about COVID-19 all the time. The rules and regulations governing what we can and can’t do change almost daily. 

And while our local infection rate is low, new challenges are on the horizon: Schools are reopening in just a few weeks, college students are returning to campus and scientists are warning that a second wave of the virus could lead to an uptick in sickness and death. 

It’s hard to think of a worse time for turmoil at your local county health department. 

And yet. 

Predictably, county officials had little to say when questioned about Ayers’ abrupt departure by Daily Gazette reporter Pete DeMola. Michelle Ostrelich, chairwoman of the county legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, appeared unaware of it, saying, “I’m going to need to get some more information on that.” 

Yes, please do. 

In the meantime, Schenectady County residents are left to wonder just what the heck is going on at the agency tasked with coordinating the county’s response to the pandemic. 

Ostrelich told the Gazette that she had “complete faith” in the health department, but her remarks aren’t especially reassuring. 

There’s certainly no particular reason, given the odd, murky circumstances surrounding Ayers’ departure, to trust that all is well, or to accept that this is simply a personnel matter, and that therefore there’s nothing to see. 

The upheaval in Public Health cries out for an explanation, but I wouldn’t expect much from a county government characterized by a lack of transparency and tight control. 

Members of the county legislature could exercise some independence and look into the matter, but that’s about as likely as my son finding a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. One can dream, however, and I often dream of a world where public officials are open and honest about what’s going on. 

Ayers’ departure was a surprise, prompting one acquaintance, who works at a prominent local health care organization, to ask: “But who is in charge?” 

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I provided the name of the county’s new interim public health director, Keith Brown, but I’m not sure it really answers the question of who is in charge of public health in Schenectady. 

All through the pandemic, I’ve wondered why the public health department – and Ayers in particular – weren’t doing more to communicate directly with county residents about the risks of COVID-19. 

In the early days of the crisis, when other local counties made a point of holding regular press briefings to inform the public,

the lack of communication

from Schenectady County was noticeable, and concerning. 

Eventually things improved, but Ayers never became a prominent part of the county’s public outreach. 

This always struck me as peculiar: Other county leaders have often appeared in public flanked by their public health directors. I’ve grown accustomed to seeing Albany County Executive Dan McCoy deliver his briefings with health commissioner Elizabeth Whalen by his side, and to watching Montgomery County Executive Matt Ossenfort team up with health director Sara Boerenko to update the public.  

None of this is to say that Ayers wasn’t working hard behind the scenes. 

But it does make you wonder why she wasn’t out in front a bit more, answering questions and informing the public like other county public health directors. 

For months, I wanted to see more of Ayers. 

Now she’s gone. 

Why?

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

 

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