THE YEAR OF COVID: Fighting the pandemic in Montgomery County amid skyrocketing death toll

From left, Jean Sweetman, Michele Lasher and Sara Boerenko are shown at the Montgomery County Public Health Department Dec. 23
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From left, Jean Sweetman, Michele Lasher and Sara Boerenko are shown at the Montgomery County Public Health Department Dec. 23

In a year full of unexpected and unlikely developments, Montgomery County has had a particularly uneven and difficult path.

It emerged from the first surge of the pandemic virtually unscathed, with 119 known COVID infections among its residents and just four deaths as of July 2, compared with 395,872 infected and 24,885 dead statewide.

As of Feb. 25, with the second surge of the pandemic all but over, 3,137 county residents have been infected and 105 killed by COVID. Both numbers represent an increase of more than 2,600%.

Statewide, the number of infections increased 400% in the same time frame and the death toll climbed by 54%.

Per-capita, Montgomery County now has the highest death toll of any county in the state aside from New York City and two of its adjoining suburbs, Westchester and Nassau counties.

“Our numbers were so low for so long that I think people in the community thought … ‘We must be OK,’ ” said Sara Boerenko, Montgomery County’s public health director.

Then they let down their guard, got together without masks, caught the virus and went to work the next day.

The death toll, she said, wouldn’t be so shocking if it was a steadily rising increase. But COVID and its effects basically exploded in the county in a short time.

One factor, Boerenko said, is that Montgomery County has an elderly population. That wouldn’t explain the situation entirely — all neighboring counties except Schenectady County have a similar or even higher percentage of residents age 65 or older.

A more likely factor: There are seven nursing homes within county borders, with nearly 1,000 residents combined, and COVID of course has extracted a terrible price from nursing homes this past year.

Boerenko recalls a calm and orderly preparation for COVID-19 by her and her staff, similar to what they’d do for any other communicable disease. Then, at 5:07 a.m. March 15, assistant public health director Jessica Marotta called her to say the first positive had been confirmed in the county.

“And the world stopped,” Boerenko recalled.

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At first, the potentially limiting factors facing her department — smaller staff and smaller budget than a large county would have, smaller communities spread far apart — worked in their favor. People in a small-town setting are more likely to know and be able to look out for one another.

“So we all have the capacity to be open and communicate what this journey is like,” said Boerenko, who’s out in the community as much as she’s in the office.

“This is my community, this is where I live, this is where I’m raising my family. I don’t put a lot of my time and energy and effort into data and research.”

Later in 2020, the situation spiraled out of control locally, as it did in much of the state and nation.

Boerenko was forced to watch from outside as her only remaining grandparent contracted COVID in one of those local nursing homes.

When she goes online with County Executive Matt Ossenfort for his weekly Facebook Live updates, she sometimes gets choked up as the conversation turns to nursing homes.

“It’s hard because here I am the public health director and I couldn’t protect my own grandmother,” Boerenko explained.

The story has a happy ending — Lucy Politi made a full recovery and is her feisty self again — but Boerenko hasn’t seen her in person for 54 weeks because of the nursing home lockout.

Being able to visit her grandmother, her son being able to start kindergarten and sit elbow-to-elbow with his pals — she defines normal as these things in her own life, but they define normal for everyone.

Normalcy begins to return, she said, when Montgomery County gets enough doses of vaccine to make a meaningful impact in the population.

“I don’t think it’s going to take away the anxiety of what’s happening, but I think it’s going to give people a little ease,” Boerenko said.

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