With Covid-19 spiking across Connecticut, Easton has relied on its new partnership with the Westport Weston Health District more than it ever could have expected. The retirements of Polly Edwards, the town’s sanitarian, and Dr. Chris Michos, health director, led the Board of Selectmen to unanimously vote to join the neighboring health district in September.
Easton has lacked a full-time health department because Edwards worked part-time as the town sanitarian. Dr. Michos did not have regular office hours in Easton, and his field of expertise was emergency medicine, not public health.
The part-time nature of the health department meant that the town was already deficient in a number of ways, according to town officials. Changing the way Easton’s public health system worked was a step that needed to be made.
The state of Connecticut recommended that Easton should make one of two decisions: create its own full-time health department, or join the WWHD.
First Selectman Dave Bindelglass and the Board of Selectmen intended to hold a town meeting for taxpayers to vote on the matter, but the onslaught of the Covid-19 pandemic rendered that intention impossible. The Board of Selectmen ultimately decided to enter a one-year contract with the WWHD as an interim solution until a long-term decision could be made.
“Once it became clear that a change was going to be necessary, we took a closer look at this department,” said Selectman Robert Lessler. “We realized that by joining the WWHD, we could provide much better and more extensive services to the townspeople at about the same cost.”
The trial period allows both parties to assess how the relationship works between the town and the health district. Lessler emphasized that there is no reason the contract could not be renewed if it works out well, but such a decision will not be made until the town has the opportunity to vote on it.
The early returns have been promising, according to Bindelglass. “From my point of view, it’s actually been life-saving. We absolutely could not have handled Covid on our own. The contact tracing that we do has gotten tremendous support from the health district. The policy advice for our superintendent and for me coming out of the health district is just way more involved.”
Additionally, the town is benefitting from the services of a full-time sanitarian. Eren Ceylan spends a significant amount of time working out of the Easton Town Hall, helping to address the town’s sanitation needs. Bindelglass said that Easton is likely getting more time in office from Ceylan than Edwards was able to provide. Furthermore, Mark Cooper, the WWHD health director, works full-time and is a public health expert.
“The health district definitely provides many services that would not be possible with a town-run health department,” said Selectman Kristi Sogofsky. “It is a definite plus on the health side in terms of services for our seniors and everyone in town.”
Despite all this, Easton is a unique town, and there is always concern about the loss of its autonomy. Being a small part of a three-town district raised concerns from some residents that the needs of Easton would take a back seat and that the town’s voice would be ignored. Others supported making the change to join the WWHD.
“Change is always challenging and a cause for discomfort,” Lesser said in response to these concerns. “Obviously, things are not going to be the same. However, we are receiving the same hours of service with in-town staff as we had under the former arrangement, and we can always call over to the main office in Westport.”
Lessler reiterated that the WWHD provides the town with vastly expanded services for around the same cost and that the town’s needs have far outgrown its former resources. Like much of the country, Easton is going through a transition period. The effects of Covid-19 have slowed down everything and left many in a state of limbo. It remains to be seen if the arrangement with the WWHD will be a temporary or a long-term solution.
“The future of Easton’s involvement in the Westport Weston Health District depends on the results of a town meeting,” said Sogofsky. “We have to give the people in town the chance to voice their opinion and vote on a long-term commitment.” At this time the Board of Selectmen does not plan to make any long term commitment to the WWHD without a town meeting.
“We will want to hear from as many people as we can who have had direct contact with WWHD over the course of this year,” said Lessler. “That will be one highly significant data point for us to consider in determining whether to ask the town meeting to make this arrangement permanent.”
Photo at top: Eren Ceylan, a sanitarian with the Westport Weston Health District, spends a significant amount of time working out of the Easton Town Hall, helping to address the town’s sanitation needs. — Janet Haller Photo