County forges mutual aid agreement

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In the hopes of being better prepared for a natural disaster, Suffolk County lawmakers have approved a mutual aid and assistance agreement with Onondaga County under which the counties will support each other in dealing with “epidemiology disease control” during “local disasters and other emergencies,” natural or man-made.

The idea for the partnership goes back to Hurricane Katrina, when “there was a total loss of function of the health department in the region,” Suffolk County Director of Public Health Dr. David Graham said in an interview last week. As a result, health agencies in northern Louisiana “had to assume responsibilities.” That experience prompted the Suffolk County Department of Health Services to begin putting feelers out in order to organize a mutual assistance relationship with another county—before a disaster struck.

A pact with neighboring Nassau County or New York City wasn’t pursued because a neighboring area might be impacted by the same catastrophe, Dr. Graham said, so Suffolk County officials approached Onondaga County instead. It’s “far enough away to likely not be affected,” Dr. Graham said, and has a comparable health department. It was important to partner with another county in the same state, the director said, so that both would be working under the same state rules and regulations and have the same access to state disease control data, thus making for a smooth transition.

“If either one of us had a serious loss of function from a natural disaster or man-made occurrence, the other could assume critical functions of disease control,” Dr. Graham said. It parallels “what happens when you have emergency crews for utilities going to another area in the event of a storm.”

The agreement is intended to help the county prepare for disasters that would require action within 24 hours, Dr. Graham said, anything ranging from a hurricane to an anthrax attack to various kinds of biological, chemical or radiological events.

The official Mutual Aid and Assistant Agreement, unanimously approved by the Suffolk County Legislature and signed by County Executive Steve Levy, defines a “disaster” or other emergency as an “occurrence or imminent threat or widespread damage, injury, loss of life or property resulting from … causes including, but not limited to, fire, flood, earthquake, hurricane, tornado, high water, landslide, mudslide, wind, storm, wave action, volcanic action, epidemic, air contamination, intentional, accidental or unintended release of any substance or material in any form or quantity which poses an unreasonable risk to safety and health and to property when released … explosions, fires, collapses, blight, drought, infestation, radiological accident, water contamination, bridge failure or collapse or any other incident which directly affects public safety.”

Under the pact, “if a request is made by the affected county for mutual aid assistance, the assisting county may act as an investigation resource” and make “its best efforts to obtain reports of communicable diseases … and prioritize attempts to initiate or complete case investigations.”

The website for Onondaga County features a section on its health department that includes the department’s annual report for last year. In the way of responding to a request for help, it tells how last year, after receiving “an urgent request” from the Centers for Disease Control and the New York State Department of Health “concerning a group of refugees who recently arrived in the county and were identified as having been exposed to malaria,” the department stepped in to help and “all affected individuals were assessed and treated as needed.”

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