Residents and local government were left without resources as the pandemic escalated. The Sussex County Health Department closed last March
Residents and local government were left without resources as the pandemic escalated.

State group says they moved resources to another area, but still provide some support for the county.

SUSSEX – If you go to the Sussex County Health Department, there’s a sign on the door. It says “all public health services for this area have been redirected to another location.”

There’s never a good time for a county’s health department to close, but the worst is probably during a pandemic. However that’s what the Sussex County Health Department did. In March, the department closed their doors with no warning to local residents. 

Now, local leaders are left wondering how they’re going to help their residents as COVID-19 cases continue to rise. In fact, Sussex County’s Board of Supervisors is withholding all the health department’s funding until they get some answers. 

Crater Health Leaves Sussex Without Explanation

Sussex County pays just under $200,000 a year and provides a building for the health department. The county also covers the cost of utilities. The state-run department, meanwhile, provides medical services for the county.

That includes a long list, based off the department’s own website. They offer immunizations, maternity care, pregnancy testing, tuberculosis screening and sexually transmitted infections testing, as well as treatment. Just like any other health department, the Sussex operation is supposed to also handle restaurant inspections, community health initiatives and communicable disease surveillance.

Sussex County provides the building and some funding, but the department is operated by the state. Specifically, the Sussex County Health Department is run by Virginia’s Crater Health District. CHD operates health departments on behalf of the Virginia Department of Health in the counties of Dinwiddie, Prince George, Surry, and Sussex. It also operates in the cities of Emporia, Hopewell and Petersburg.

When the local department closed a few weeks into the pandemic, the Sussex County Board of Supervisors were shocked. And since then, they’ve heard next to nothing about it.

Technically, since Crater Health reports to the Virginia Department of Health, they didn’t have to check in with the board before they left town. Still, Sussex County Board of Supervisors Chairman Susan Seward said she was left scratching her head at Crater Health’s decision. 

“I’ve been chairman for five years. I have yet to get any letter, email, phone call from anyone at Crater Health saying, ‘Chairman Seward, this is what we’re going to do.’ And the thing that makes me so nervous is I don’t think they know what they’re gonna do,” said Seward. “We’ve been pretty much left in the dark.”

RELATED: Southwest Virginia Sees COVID-19 Infections Drop

Residents Must Travel To Reach Services

 

Crater Health officials say they streamlined operations across their coverage area, to focus on the COVID-19 response. While they shut down the Sussex County building, residents can get the same services at other health departments CHD operates. The problem is these departments are miles away, with the closest one in Emporia being a 25-minute drive minimum. 

“Many roles have been adjusted in response to COVID-19 mitigation strategies to provide testing and vaccine distribution to Crater Health District residents,” said Tara Rose, spokesperson for Crater Health. “This work is being conducted with personnel that normally works out of the facility located in Sussex, as well as other staff being reassigned across the district to assist with this operation.”

Technically, Sussex Clinic Operations reopened in October, according to Rose. But it’s only open every second Wednesday from 9:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. Also, Rose pointed to COVID-19 testing efforts, which started in Sussex on May 27, 2020. However, that’s done on a rotating basis, once a month in an area. Crater still hasn’t announced when February’s testing effort will take place, more than halfway through the month.

But Sussex County officials say taxpayers aren’t paying for an operation that’s occasionally open. The money they pay the state is for a constantly operating health department, just like any other area. With that in mind, Sussex officials are taking matters into their own hands. According to Chairman Seward, the health department is not going to see a single cent from them in the next fiscal year until they get results. But that’s not all. They’re also looking into replacing their health department altogether. 

Taking Matters into Their Own Hands

During their January budget meeting, the Sussex Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to hold onto about $75,000 of their budget. Originally, they were going to give it to the health department. For now, they’re keeping it until the Crater Health District can provide some answers. They’re also doing some research to see if they can open their private health service, without the need for a local health department at all. 

“The health department model, at least in the region, we’re in does not work,” said Seward. “It has been tested and failed. Y’all go do your own thing. We’re going to keep our hard earned taxpayer money here in the county. And we can go find a couple of nurse practitioners and actually provide true health services to our citizens.” 

If the Virginia Code allows it, the county is trying to hire their own health practitioners to help their residents. While there are no concrete plans in place yet, they currently have their county attorney look into Virginia law to see if it’s possible.  And it just might be. 

According to Virginia Code § 32.1-32, any governing body of any city or county that does not enter a contract with a local health department can appoint their own health director and board of health.  

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Sussex Residents Left Behind

So far, the Sussex County Health Department has only hosted one vaccination event in Sussex County. According to Seward, the event went pretty smoothly with five hundred people receiving their first vaccine. However, Dogwood couldn’t find any information about upcoming vaccination events in Sussex.

In order to get vaccinated, you have to get on the waiting list, set up through the state’s new vaccinate.virginia.gov website . But, in rural communities like Sussex, some residents don’t have a reliable internet connection. And without the health department providing assistance, this process has gotten even harder. 

“What they’re providing is almost laughable at this point. The model is so flawed for Virginia. And our governor is a physician,” said Seward. “Rural Virginia has so little internet access. And the internet access we do have is not at the hands of the people who need the vaccination the most. Did nobody think this through?” 

According to the Virginia Census, 33.6% of the county’s residents’ don’t have an internet connection in their homes. This is more than double the state’s average of 16.4%. Not to mention that Sussex’s elderly population is three percentage points higher than the state’s average of 15.6%. 

Additionally, over half of the county’s population are Black Virginians, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and this population is also at greater risk of contracting the virus. An August study by the University of Minnesota showed that Black people are three times more likely to catch COVID-19 than white people on a national level.

What Should Sussex Residents Do For Now? 

Right now, the chairwoman recommends that residents should try their best with what they have.  Don’t be afraid to ask for help from any family or friends who have access to a computer. 

“So, you know, hopefully our older folks have someone in the family with computer access and the computer skills that can get them signed up,” said Seward. “And we are doing the best we can in this county to get more vaccines here.”

You can sign up for the vaccine here. You can also call this hotline at 877-829-4682. Right now, anyone 65 years or older can get vaccinated. Additionally, any healthcare workers, essential workers, or people with underlying health conditions can also get the vaccine.  

You can also call the Virginia COVID-19 call center with any questions at 804-722-8799. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is still advising that people keep using precautions, including wearing a mask, proper hand washing and maintaining social distancing protocols. Virginia is still currently under a state of emergency and there are still COVID-19 regulations on gatherings and mask wearing in place. 

Arianna Coghill is a content producer with Dogwood. You can reach her at arianna@couriernewsroom.com