‘They basically abandoned us,’ Sussex County Health Department closed as the pandemic hit Virginia

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SUSSEX COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) — Just as the pandemic took hold of Virginia, the state shut down a health department leaving local leaders to wonder how they would protect their residents.

Without warning in March of last year, the Sussex County Health Department suddenly shut their doors. Sussex County Board of Supervisor Eric Fly says the state basically abandoned the community.

“They just quite frankly disappeared,” Fly said. “They shut the doors and went away. We had no notification, there wasn’t an email, a phone call, a text.”

The Sussex Health Department is part of the state’s Crater Health District. — and currently its doors are locked with a sign that reads “all public health services for this area have been redirected to another location.”

“It took us two weeks for someone in Crater to tell us where did our health department go to,” Fly said.

The Supervisor said they were told residents could continue to get services and make appointments in Hopewell. Fly said that’s a problem because Hopewell is 40 miles away.

“We have an aging population, a lot of people don’t drive, we don’t buses, we don’t have taxis,” he said.

Tara Rose, a spokesperson for the Crater Health District sent the following statement to 8News:

Many local governments, including Sussex County, closed during the onset of COVID-19. As a result, many health department services in the Crater Health District were streamlined and redirected to focus on the district’s COVID-19 response. The health department continued to offer services to the community even though the Sussex County building was closed. All services were and still are available for residents. Women Infants and Children (WIC) nutritional program, vital records, environmental health all have virtual options and tele appointments. We have redirected efforts on community outreach, education, mitigation, and containment strategies for the COVID 19. Many roles have been adjusted in response to COVID-19 mitigation strategies to provide testing and vaccine distribution to Crater Health District residents. 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.

Tara Rose, a spokesperson for the Crater Health District

Fly feels like the county has been left high and dry and he says this isn’t what the taxpayers pay for.

“It really quite frankly left us in a lurch. We’re in a pandemic none of us are medical professionals. How are we supposed to protect our people?” Fly asked.

He said Sussex has an older African American population with a lot of health issues like high blood pressure and diabetes which can be a high risk for COVID-19 patients Plus, there’s no hospital or 24-hour medical center in the rural community.

“We don’t have a doc in the box of any type,” Fly said.

Yet, he claims the community has had little communication or guidance from the Crater Health District. COVID testing wasn’t even offered until late May with an event residents had to register on-line for. And, Fly said it lasted about an hour.

“We don’t have broadband throughout the County.,” he explained. “So we go through the entire spring, summer, we don’t know what our positivity rate is.”

With the exception of a recent vaccine event that Fly claimed was mostly organized by Sussex volunteers, seniors have been left out in the cold. Ralph, a 91-year-old resident of Sussex, said he’s called the health department and visited neighboring health departments in the Crater Health District.

“They said they had no idea when it would become available,” he said.

Fly said he pressed Crater Health about the lack of vaccination events and was told they didn’t have the locations or the staff to do it. So, Sussex Supervisors came up with a workaround. They securing retired doctors, nurses and the Davis travel stop for a vaccination event. Still, Fly claimed they were told, “no.”

Spokeswoman Tara Rose sent the following statement in response:

Crater Health District (CHD) held large-scale community testing events across the entire district. The Sussex event was held on May 27, 2020, at Sussex Middle School. In addition, CHD began our locality testing site rotation across the district in June 2020, with Sussex’ first rotation testing date being June 29, 2020. Testing sites continue a monthly rotation schedule at each locality in our district. The most recent local testing CHD conducted in Sussex was held on January 8. Testing is scheduled to continue in February and the upcoming months.

Sussex Clinic Operations have been conducted on the second Wednesday of each month from 9 a.m. to11:30 a.m. Plans to expand additional clinics are in progress, including COVID-19 vaccine clinics.

Tara Rose, a spokesperson for the Crater Health District

“That’s not what we paid for,” Fly said.

Sussex has a contract with the Commonwealth of Virginia where the county provides the building, utilities and pays close to $200,000 a year in return for full-time medical services.

“Services for us in Sussex County is this facility open and giving shots,” Fly said. “So they have breached the contract, our attorneys are looking at what legal action we can take.”

In the meantime, the County is holding their last two payments to the state and is considering plans to go out on their own.

8News has also learned neighboring Surry County is in a similar boat. Melissa Rollins, Surry County Administrator confirmed since the pandemic hit, the health department there is only open one day a week. She said the Board of Supervisors and residents there are concerned too.

“People want information and they are not there.” She told us Surry County also has contract with the state for health services,” Rollins said. “The health department should be their first line of defense.”

Both Surry County and Sussex County leaders have been told it is a staffing problem. This has the local leaders asking, why state lawmakers aren’t addressing the need with more funding and by hiring additional staff.

8News asked the State Health Commissioner and the Governor’s Office about it. We have yet to get a response.

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