With the Dutchess County health department describing itself as near capacity for COVID-19 testing, local schools may have to go fully remote due to lack of testing availability.

In a recent interview, Dr. Anil Vaidian, head of the county’s Department of Community and Behavioral Health (DCBH), told the Poughkeepsie Journal that “we barely have the capacity” to do the follow-ups on positive COVID-19 tests at current infection levels.

As COVID-19 infections rise, Vaidian indicated that schools won’t be able to rely on the county to provide the testing they need to stay open unless the health department receives additional staff and support.

Some Dutchess County legislators have called on County Executive Marc Molinaro to add funding to the county’s health department to help schools stay open.

“Our schools cannot stay open unless there is enough testing available and the county health department says they are near capacity,” said Beacon legislator Nick Page. “Molinaro has had months to plan for the second wave. Parents and their children deserve better.”

Under New York State’s COVID-19 plan, regions enter yellow, orange or red zones based on their local infection rates.

Schools entering yellow zones must test 20% of their in-person students, faculty and staff within two weeks to continue in-person. If those tests show an infection rate higher than the surrounding zone, tests must continue with 20% being tested on a bi-weekly basis. “A positivity rate in a school that is lower than in the yellow zone is a sufficient demonstration that in-person instruction is not a significant driver of local viral spread,” according to the NYS Department of Health document.

In Dutchess, a yellow zone could occur with a seven-day 3% positivity rate. The county is already over 3% with Tuesday’s positive rate spiking to 5.7%. Many other counties have already had restriction zones declared.

“When zones were designated in other counties, such as Onondaga and Monroe, those counties were able to assist school districts with testing and sustain in-person schooling,” said Poughkeepsie legislator Rebecca Edwards. “We should be providing the resources to meet that need, not cutting the health department.”

The Molinaro administration approved 152 county employees, including 15% of the health department staff, for its employee buyout program. The 2021 proposed budget includes these cuts to reduce spending in the face of the COVID-19 downturn.

Most of the departing employees will be leaving this month as COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths continue to rise locally and nationwide.

During recent budget meetings, department heads asserted that there would be no reduction in services due to cuts in personnel and spending and that county employees would do more with less.

“We are meeting the crisis of our lifetime and the needs of our community while respecting our taxpayers,” said Molinaro after the budget was passed out of committee.  “The budget forwarded to the full legislature [Nov. 18] in a bipartisan vote demands a lot of our government and delivers on the priorities of our residents – we will continue to rise to this occasion.”

The county’s 2021 budget is scheduled for a final vote at a meeting on Thursday night.

CORRECTION: Based on a 11/30 NYS press release from the governor’s office, this article initially reported that school testing had been changed to begin only after reaching orange zones. After contacting the NYS Dept of Health for clarification, we have corrected that error.

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