COVID, PFAS Push Killingworth to Join Connecticut River Health District

KILLINGWORTH – The responsibilities of the Killingworth Health Department have grown quickly over the past year, to the point that the only employee of that department – its director – is warning it may be more than a one-person job.

Killingworth Health Director Amy Scholz told the Board of Selectmen that the responsibilities of the COVID-19 pandemic, the discovery of PFAS contamination in wells in town, and an increase in building applications have stretched the responsibilities of her role beyond what one person can manage.

Scholz is leaving at the end of this week, and  the Board of Selectmen agreed on Monday to temporarily contract with the Connecticut River Area Health District on a month-to-month basis as the town decides whether to move forward with its own health district – an increasingly rare situation in Connecticut – or join a regional health district on a permanent basis.

In a memo to the board last month, Scholz outlined how her responsibilities had grown over the year that she has held the job. Early on, she was spending 10 or 11 hours a week on conference calls related to COVID, which has reduced to 3-4 hours a week in recent months. 

Scholz said her time is also consumed with contract tracing, responding to questions from residents about COVID, and from parents when cases come up in schools. Aside from COVID, Scholz has all the other responsibilities of a local public health department – reviewing building applications, inspecting restaurants, daycares and salons, reviewing well and septic systems, and answering all calls to the department.

“I think we’re at a point where we need a model in place that can adapt if things like a pandemic came up, or a foodborne outbreak that would require someone’s full attention,” Scholz said at an October Board of Selectmen meeting. “If it was just one person, it would be very hard to do soil tests or jump on other things like that.”

Scholz said the Killingworth Health Department is strong in environmental health aspects like wells and septic systems, but said that joining a regional health department could give it more to offer on the health side – including health education and preparedness.

At the Board of Selectmen meeting on Monday night, First Selectwoman Cathy Iino said the Connecticut River Area Health District would charge Killingworth a population-based fee of $72,550 a year, or $6,045 a month. The board agreed to contract with the district for three months, with an option to leave after each month.

The fee includes all the services the health department offers, as well as four hours of office hours a week, Iino said. She told CT Examiner on Tuesday that specifics about the office hours haven’t been set yet, but residents will be able to access the regional health department by calling the Killingworth Health Department phone number at 860-663-1765 x223.

Iino told CT Examiner the short-term contract would give the town and incoming First Selectwoman Nancy Gorski time to figure out what to do next – a process that will start with the town Public Health Agency, which is scheduled to meet Wednesday at 7 p.m. on Zoom. 

Iino said the town looked at joining a regional health district early on in her tenure. Because Killingworth is so heavily residential, with not much restaurant or commercial activity, or sewers or public water that would require sanitarian services, the cost of joining a district was higher than having a part-time health department in town.  

The gap is less today than it was then, but it is still more expensive to join a health district than to operate the town health department at the same level it has been running. Killingworth budgeted about $54,000 for its health department services this year, mostly the salary for the health director. Iino also said fees would be higher with the regional department, and the town would no longer receive the revenue from those fees.

“It might look like a fiscally attractive thing, but the health director is a much bigger job than it was before, and COVID was such a huge piece of her time,” Iino said. “So the town will look again now at the health district as opposed to the town department. Our current health director thinks we really need a person and a half, not just a person to fulfill all the obligations.”

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