No one in Steuben County knew what they were getting into during the beginning hours and days
following March 16, 2020, when schools were closed, a State of Emergency declared and the Emergency Operations Center opened.
What county officials did know was that public health and safety during the rapidly widening COVID-19 pandemic was their fundamental priority, and that the operation of county services must continue.
“Any thanks is inadequate,” county Public Health Director Darlene Smith told roughly 150 county employees at the start of a ceremony Monday recognizing the selfless efforts of people in every county department during the pandemic, which has claimed 303 lives, with 28,599 cases reported to county Public Health to date.
County workers were recognized at the special ceremony, with each receiving a “Challenge Coin” – a military-style honor given to those who “Stand Apart, Fight Together.”
The all-out response recognized at the ceremony included the tremendous efforts of Public Health, Office of Emergency Services, Public Works, Social Services, and Sheriff’s departments and to the behind-the-scenes services of agencies such as 9-1-1, aging, and public defense.
In many instances, given the precarious impact of the coronavirus, that work put employees remaining in direct contact with residents in danger of contracting the illness, Smith said.
“You acted without regard to your own safety, knowing what danger you might be in,” she told employees. “It was dangerous stuff, and you acted with real bravery.”
During the long pandemic, the county also was challenged by a “100-year” flood a year ago, county Manager Jack Wheeler noted.
County legislators, particularly Chairman Scott Van Etten, R-Caton, also provided invaluable and cohesive support for county departments, Wheeler said.
Van Etten said county officials and employees served residents with unflagging heroism in the face of conflicting and complicated state and federal mandates, with public health everyone’s first concern.
“It is my belief your actions saved lives,” he said.