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Essex County remembers COVID deaths with 27 roses

Essex County Sheriff David Reynolds places a rose in a vase, commemorating a life lost to COVID-19, on the steps of the old Essex County courthouse on Tuesday, March 23. (News photo — Elizabeth Izzo)

ELIZABETHTOWN — Twenty-seven roses were placed, one by one, in a vase on the steps of the old Essex County courthouse on Tuesday, March 23.

Colorful mosaic pieces adorning the vase glittered in the bright spring sun. The red petals of the roses were striking against the grayish-beige pavement at the county complex, not only for their color but for the enormity of what each flower represented.

Essex County officials honored each life lost from COVID-19 in this county over the past year in a ceremony in Elizabethtown. The small gathering of lawmakers, public health staff and health care industry leaders was somber as 27 county department heads and public health workers, as if in a funeral procession, marched to the steps of the courthouse and each laid one rose in a vase.

For a moment, shuffling feet and the mournful notes of a bagpipe were the only sounds heard on the county complex lawn.

Remembering what’s been lost

It was 372 days ago that Essex County reported its first confirmed case of COVID-19. That person, who has not been publicly identified, entered the emergency department at Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake on March 13, 2020. A few days later on March 17, Adirondack Health CEO Sylvia Getman confirmed that the person indeed did have COVID-19 and was being monitored by the county Health Department.

Testing in this area was limited for some time, and it wasn’t clear at first how the virus spread. Despite the unknowns, this county was spared from deaths related to COVID-19 for months.

That changed this past August.

Essex County reported its first death from COVID-19 on Aug. 18, 2020. The woman who died was later identified by her family as Judy Frennier-Ryan, a 65-year-old former social worker who was receiving care at the Essex Center nursing home and rehabilitation facility in Elizabethtown.

Seventeen residents of that home died in less than two months, 16 of them Essex County residents. Another coronavirus outbreak at an assisted living facility in Willsboro, Champlain Valley Senior Community, brought more deaths, and together with other Essex County residents who have died after contracting COVID-19 since then, the total number of fatalities countywide has reached 27 over the past seven months.

These were people robbed of time with their families, robbed of hugs from their grandchildren, taken from friends who loved them and communities they were a part of. Because of federal privacy laws, the names of many of these people aren’t public, but nonetheless, the loss lingers.

“We offer our condolences to all the families that have lost someone to COVID-19 in the past year,” said Willsboro Central School District Superintendent Justin Gardner, speaking on behalf of all school superintendents in Essex County.

To date, more than 540,000 Americans have died after contracting COVID-19.

As much as the remembrance ceremony on Tuesday was centered around the lives lost, health officials took the opportunity to remember what everyone has lost or sacrificed over the last year.

“It’s been exhausting,” said Getman, the Adirondack Health CEO. “I don’t see any reason to sugarcoat it. It’s been exhausting for everyone.”

Getman acknowledged the lives lost “despite all efforts and knowledge we brought to this fight.” She also highlighted the work of health care and public health staff who have “been making decisions that impact their families, friends and neighbors,” with each decision carrying possible negative consequences.

“The complexity of trying to manage this … has been unprecedented,” Getman said. “The implications of taking the wrong path have been devastating.”

Vaccines

Health officials also tried to share some hope for the future.

“It’s time to roll up our sleeves and get vaccinated,” Essex County Public Health Director Linda Beers said.

As of Tuesday, March 23, more than 35% of Essex County’s population had received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine. Beers said she’s confident the county will be able to vaccinate every resident who wants to get vaccinated by the summer. That’s if every resident chooses to get vaccinated, however.

Eventually, she said, the department will start an outreach initiative to connect with residents who are hesitant about getting vaccinated. The department has also already taken 100 doses of coronavirus vaccines to homebound residents across the county, according to Beers.

Essex County Board of Supervisors Chairman Shaun Gillilland, R-Willsboro, said the number of vaccine doses the state is delivering to the county has been going up.

“We’re going to get to a point where the supply will exceed the demand,” he said.

The county Health Department plans to continue operating mobile vaccine clinics. According to Program Coordinator Andrea Whitmarsh, the department is constantly exploring ways to get vaccine information to vulnerable communities.

Other speakers during the remembrance ceremony Tuesday were Jonathan Carman of Rep. Elise Stefanik’s office; Franklin County Legislator and Malone village Mayor Andrea Dumas, representing state Sen. Dan Stec; Elizabethtown Community Hospital Chief Medical Officer Dr. David Clauss; and Hudson Headwaters Health Network Chief Medical Officer Dr. William Borgos.

Visit online at www.co.essex.ny.us/health/make-an-appointment to learn more about who is currently eligible to get vaccinated against COVID-19, where upcoming vaccine clinics are and how to schedule an appointment at a county Health Department-run clinic. Residents can also visit am-i-eligible.covid19vaccine.health.ny.gov to find a vaccine appointment at a state-run clinic, or contact a local pharmacy to get on a waiting list for a vaccine appointment.