Suffolk County

Photo by Kyle Barr

By Rich Acritelli

Through these daunting times, the men and women in the Armed Services have always made this nation proud of their efforts to protect, preserve and promote the ideals of this nation at home and abroad.

Earlier this month, Tommy Fricke and his workers from Fricke Memorial added a tribute to the Rocky Point Veterans Square on the corner of Broadway and 25A — another reminder of national service to local residents — through the Combat Medic Joseph P. Dwyer Statue.  

This statue of Dwyer identifies the terrible impact of post traumatic stress disorder on combat veterans that have returned home after being involved in serious fighting. Since 1915, this recognized brain trauma, from the impact of fighting on a soldier was identified as “shell shocked.”  

There was no significant counseling that was offered by the government to properly treat millions of men and women from these different conflicts. Little was offered in therapy to the veteran that had fought over the skies of Europe, or who landed at D-Day, or through the island-hopping campaigns in the Pacific and Asia. 

In many cases, veterans were told to forget about their experiences, go home, get married, attend college, find a job and start a family.  

Photo by Kyle Barr

It is highly possible that many of the people who drive by the Dwyer Statue had family members who had no significant help to deal with PTSD. Some men and women had nightmares, outbursts, flashbacks and were in dire need of mental and physical attention that was not provided to them. 

According to the Veterans Administration, the most recent Gulf War veterans that served during Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom have been inflicted from 11-20 veterans out of every 100. During Desert Storm, the figure is 12 out of every 100 veterans have suffered from PTSD.  

And these numbers are staggering for Vietnam veterans, who at one point in their life had to deal with the enormous pressures of their service. It is estimated that at least 30% of Vietnam Veterans endured PTSD.  

This new statue focuses on the strength of American service, and the responsibilities of our government to care for all the members of the Armed Forces when they return home.  

As a child, Dwyer attended elementary school at Infant Jesus in Port Jefferson and graduated from Mount Sinai High School in 1994. As a young man, he enjoyed playing golf and going fishing with his friends and family. After he left high school, Dwyer moved to North Carolina with his parents and was employed at a local hospital where he transported people who needed medical treatment. 

According to his older sister Kristine, Dwyer was a peaceful man who always wanted to care for others.  When America was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, after watching the assault on this nation, he tried to enlist that very day into the army but had to wait until Sept. 12. He eventually graduated from Basic and Advanced Individual Training from Fort Benning, Georgia, where he became a combat medic.  

Shortly after finishing his training, Dwyer was sent to Fort Bliss, Texas, where he vaccinated soldiers that were deployed overseas. On Feb. 15, 2003, he married his sweetheart, Matina, in Troy, North Carolina.  

When President George W. Bush (R) ordered American soldiers to be sent to the Middle East to attack Saddam Hussein and Iraq in 2003, Dwyer replaced a single mother, so that she was able to remain home with her child. He was one of the first soldiers to enter Iraq during this war with the 37th Cavalry Regiment. 

Joseph Dwyer in uniform. Photo from Dwyer family

While Dwyer told his family that he was being deployed to a hospital in Kuwait, they had no idea that he was with the leading army units that were on the road toward Baghdad — it wasn’t until the media began to run stories of his actions saving a child when they realized he was serving in Iraq.  

This well-known picture of Dwyer carrying a young child to safety was published and reported across the nation, and around the globe.  But to the day he died, Dwyer repeatedly stated that there was another combat medic that played a pivotal role in saving the life of this young boy. 

It was a difficult deployment for Dwyer who was constantly under attack, lonely and unable to sleep.  An exhausted Dwyer began inhaling computer cleaner Dust-Off to help him sleep a few hours before going back onto duty.  

On June 20, 2008, Dwyer left Iraq and traveled alone to Fort Bliss to eventually meet his wife, where they set up their home. A month later, the couple headed back to Mount Sinai, where he enjoyed the reunion with his family, friends and teachers.  

Right away, his sister realized that he was grossly underweight. He lost over 40 pounds during his time in Iraq. While Kristine cherishes the moment of seeing her brother after his deployment, she is not sure of his true joy, due to his unknown PTSD condition. 

Once he was at home, Dwyer was continually impacted by the issues of his PTSD condition. There were points that when he was driving, that Dwyer feared possible unexploded ordinances that were on the roads. He never held the feeling of personal safety, had disturbing visions, and for the rest of his life, this peaceful man had no personal peace after he served in Iraq. 

Kristine noticed a stare that developed in her brother who always wanted to be outside. Matina observed that her husband never liked going out to dinner, he closely watched the other customers, and always kept an eye on the door. Dwyer eventually gained his discharge from the service, but it was a battle to fight the government to receive his full disability compensation. During his service at home and when he left the army, Dwyer was still unable to sleep, and he continued to inhale Dust-Off.

By the end of his life in 2008, he did not have family members living with him and was unable to hold onto his own mental state. 

The picture that was widely presented across the nation and in different parts of the world was indicative of the kindness of Dwyer, even as he dealt with the horrors of his own personal concerns.

Until he passed away, it was important for Dwyer to have his story truthfully reported that presented the negatives of PTSD, and how it drastically changed the mental state of this peaceful citizen. On June 28, 2008, Dwyer died from the inhalants that he used to cope with the severity of his PTSD. 

Dwyer and his family. Photo from Dwyer family.

In speaking about the memory of her husband, Matina firmly recalls how he always sought to help others with an immense amount of love. This affection was especially demonstrated to his then two-year-old daughter who was called his “little princess.”

Meagan K. Dwyer is now 14 years old with a memory that lives on through family stories and pictures of her father.  

At the end of World War II, the historic Flag Raising at Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima, was a similar picture that showed the resolve of American service overseas. 

When Ira Hayes, a marine that hoisted this flag during the earliest moments of this terrifying battle, came home, he suffered from PTSD where he drank heavily and agonized over his fellow marines and friends that died on this island. A short time later, he died from excessive drinking. 

Although Hayes passed away nearly 67 years ago, his story is connected to Dwyer. Both veterans were widely documented through a historic picture that rapidly received national acclaim from Americans across this country. 

But the hardships of PTSD never discriminate from one soldier or conflict to the next, and it is vital for this government to always perfect its ways to help combat veterans. 

Stony Brook University. File photo

Stony Brook University has been at the center of the COVID-19 pandemic, as hospital staff has treated and comforted residents stricken with the virus and researchers have worked tirelessly on a range of projects, including manufacturing personal protective equipment. Amid a host of challenges, administrators at Stony Brook have had to do more with less under budgetary pressure. In a two-part series, Interim Provost Fotis Sotiropoulos and President Maurie McInnis share their approaches and solutions, while offering their appreciation for their staff.

Part I: Like many other administrators at universities across the country and world, Fotis Sotiropoulos, Dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences and Interim Provost of Stony Brook University, has been juggling numerous challenges.

Named interim provost in September, Sotiropoulos, who is also a SUNY Distinguished Professor of Civil Engineering, has focused on ways to help President Maurie McInnis keep the campus community safe, keep the university running amid financial stress and strain, and think creatively about ways to enhance the university’s educational programs.

In January, Stony Brook University which is one of two State University of New York programs to earn an Association of American Universities distinction, plans to announce new degree programs aimed at combining expertise across at least two colleges.

“We have charged all the deans to work together to come up with this future-of-work initiative,” Sotiropoulos said. “It has to satisfy a number of criteria,” which include involving at least two colleges or schools and it has to be unique. Such programs will “allow us to market the value of a Stony Brook education.”

Sotiropoulos said Stony Brook hoped to announce at least two or three degree ideas by the middle of January.

Fotis Sotiropoulos. File photo from SBU

Under financial pressure caused by the pandemic, the university has “undertaken this unprecedented initiative to think of the university as one,” Sotiropoulos said. Looking at the East and West campus together, the university plans to reduce costs and improve efficiency in an organization that is “complex with multiple silos,” he said. At times, Stony Brook has paid double or triple for the same product or service. The university is taking a step back to understand and optimize its expenses, he added.

On the other side of the ledger, Stony Brook is seeking ways to increase its revenue, by creating these new degrees and attracting more students, particularly from outside the state.

Out-of-state students pay more in tuition, which provides financial support for the school and for in-state students as well.

“We have some room to increase out-of-state students,” Sotiropoulos said. “There is some flexibility” as the university attempts to balance between the lower tuition in-state students pay, which benefits socioeconomically challenged students, and the higher tuition from out-of-state students.

While the university has been eager to bring in talented international students as well in what Sotiropoulos described as a “globally-connected world,” the interim provost recognized that this effort has been “extremely challenging right now,” in part because of political tension with China and in part because Chinese universities are also growing.

Stony Brook “recognizes that it needs to diversify right now. The university is considering strategies for trying to really expand in other countries. We need to do a lot more to engage students from African countries,” he said.

Sotiropoulos described Africa as an important part of the future, in part because of the projected quadrupling of the population in coming decades. “We are trying to preserve our Asian base of students,” he said, but, at the same time, “we are thinking of other opportunities to be prepared for the future.”

While the administration at the university continues to focus on cutting costs, generating revenue and attracting students to new programs, officials recognize the need to evaluate the effectiveness of these efforts for students. “Assessment is an integral part,” Sotiropoulos said. The school will explore the jobs students are able to find. “It’s all about the success of our students,” he added. The school plans to assess constantly, while making adjustments to its efforts.

Pandemic Response

Stony Brook University has been at the forefront of reacting to the pandemic on a number of fronts. The hospital treated patients during the heavy first wave of illnesses last spring, while the engineering school developed ways to produce personal protective equipment, hand sanitizer, and even MacGyver-style ventilators. The university has also participated in multi-site studies about the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19.

Stony Brook has been involved in more than 200 dedicated research projects across all disciplines, which span 45 academic departments and eight colleges and schools within the university.

Sotiropoulos, whose expertise is in computational fluid mechanics, joined a group of researchers at SBU to conduct experiments on the effectiveness of masks in stopping the way aerosolized viral particles remain in the air, long after patients cough, sneeze, and even leave the room.

“Some of these droplets could stay suspended for many minutes and could take up to half an hour” to dissipate in a room, especially if there’s no ventilation, Sotiropoulos said, and added he was pleased and proud of the scientific community for working together to understand the problem and to find solutions.

“The commitment of scientists at Stony Brook and other universities was quite inspirational,” he said.

According to Sotiropoulos, the biggest danger to combatting the virus comes from the “mistrust” of science, He hopes the effectiveness of the vaccine in turning around the number of people infected and stricken with a variety of difficult and painful symptoms can convince people of the value of the research.

Sotiropoulos said the rules the National Institutes of Health have put in place have also ensured that the vaccine is safe and effective. People who question the validity of the research “don’t understand how strict this process is and how many hurdles you have to go through.” 

Part 2 will appear in next week’s issue.

Kara Hahn takes the oath of office as deputy presiding officer administered by County Clerk Judy Pascale on Jan. 4. Photos from Suffolk County Legislators

The Suffolk County Legislature has officially started its new session, with new lawmakers sworn in this week for the body’s 52nd organizational meeting Jan. 4. 

Legislator Nicholas Caracappa (R-Selden) took his ceremonial oath of office as a new lawmaker, while Rob Calarco (D-Patchogue) and Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) were reelected to their leadership posts.

Calarco, legislator for the 7th District, was reelected to lead the body for a second year as presiding officer in a bipartisan vote, and Hahn, who represents the 5th District, was reelected deputy presiding officer, also in a bipartisan vote. 

Rob Calarco takes the oath of office as presiding officer of the Suffolk County Legislature. Photo from Suffolk County Legislature

“Important projects await us in the coming year, and we will confront the challenges of 2021 the same way we did in 2020 —in a bipartisan fashion with a shared commitment to cooperation and finding common ground,” Calarco said in a statement. 

In his remarks, he reflected on the challenges of 2020 and pointed to legislative progress on diversity and inclusion, open space and farmland preservation, and updates to the county’s wastewater code. 

In 2021, Calarco looks forward to building out sewers in Patchogue, the Mastic Peninsula, Deer Park, Smithtown and Kings Park, which will help protect Suffolk County’s water and provide an economic boost to downtowns. Additionally, he said the Legislature will soon be presented with a plan to reinvent policing in Suffolk, as required by an executive order from Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D).

“The men and women of our law enforcement agencies work hard every day to do their jobs professionally and with a commitment to protecting all the residents of Suffolk County, yet we also know whole portions of our population fear the presence of police in their community, making officers’ jobs far more difficult,” he said. “We must put politics aside to ensure the plan addresses the root of those fears, and builds on the initiatives already underway to establish trust and confidence between our police and the communities they protect.”

Hahn intends to continue focusing on the global pandemic that has hit close to home.

“Looking ahead, 2021 will once again be a tough year, but with a vaccine there is now a light at the end of the tunnel,” she said in a statement. “We will focus our efforts on halting the spread of COVID-19, helping those in need, conquering our financial challenges and getting through this pandemic with as little heartache and pain as possible. There is hope on the horizon, and I know we will come back stronger than ever.”

After winning a special election in November, Caracappa will now represent the 4th District, filling the seat left by Republican Tom Muratore (R-Ronkonkoma) who passed suddenly in September. 

Nicholas Caracappa is sworn in as new legislator for Suffolk County’s 4th District. Photo from Suffolk County Legislature

A lifelong resident of Selden, Caracappa was a 34-year employee of the Suffolk County Water Authority. He was president of the Utility Workers Union of America, AFL-CIO, Local-393 for 14 years and previously served as a member of the union’s national executive board. 

He also served as a Middle Country school district board of education trustee for seven years and volunteered at Ground Zero. He said his goal is to keep his district’s quality of life at the forefront. 

“I am committed to the quality of life issues that make this community a great place for families to live, work and enjoy recreation,” he said in a statement. “My focus will be to eliminate wasteful spending, support our law enforcement, first responders and frontline health care workers, and protect our senior citizens, veterans and youth services.”

He added that he wants to continue enhancing Long Island’s environmental protection initiatives including critical water-quality measures and expanding the existing sewer studies in his district’s downtown regions. 

The Legislature’s Hauppauge auditorium is named after his late mother, Rose Caracappa.

Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) was sworn in last year. Representing the 6th District, she said she looks forward to continuing and expanding on the important work she’s been doing for the community. Specifically, for 2021, her top priority is working with the health department, along with federal, state and local governments to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

Anker said she wants to prioritize public safety and plans to continue to work with the county’s Department of Public Works and the state’s Department of Transportation to monitor and create safer roads. 

As the chair of the county’s Health Committee and chair of the Heroin and Opiate Epidemic Advisory Panel, she also plans to continue to collaborate with panel members to monitor the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the opioid epidemic on Long Island.

“Together we have worked to protect the integrity of this great community by addressing issues and improving our quality of life,” Anker said. “This year, I will continue to be proactive in dealing with this current pandemic and prioritize issues including stabilizing county finances, fighting crime and the drug epidemic, addressing traffic safety and working to preserve what’s left of our precious open space.”

State Senator Mario Mattera at the podium. Photo by Kimberly Brown

By Kimberly Brown

Republican elected officials gathered at a press conference in Hauppauge Thursday, Jan. 14, calling out Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) on the state’s failed vaccine rollout.

Elected officials in Hauppauge. Photo by Kimberly Brown

State senators, including Mario Mattera (R-St. James) and Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk), demanded that Cuomo implement a plan to fix issues that have arisen since the vaccine was authorized to be distributed.

Senior citizen and West Babylon resident, Anna Foley, shared her experience of how difficult it has been to obtain the vaccine, which she has still not received.

“I’m 83 years old, fighting two types of cancer and other underlying medical problems,” she said. “I can’t seem to get anyone to help. I have looked at the New York State website, called pharmacies, doctors, hospitals, and I even tried my union to see if I can get any information, to no avail.”

Foley mentioned the difficulties senior citizens are facing while trying to make an appointment for the vaccine, saying that most people ages 80 and over are not computer savvy, and the locations where the vaccine is administered are too far to drive to.

Mattera pointed out how the federal government still has not released the new vaccine to pharmacy chains like Walgreens and CVS, giving residents fewer options of locations where they can receive the vaccine.

State Senator Mario Mattera at the podium. Photo by Kimberly Brown

In his plea to the governor, Mattera said, “Get the vaccine here and get more locations. Right now, there are four locations, and do you know what they say? They say, ‘We don’t know what to do, we can’t help you.’ It’s unacceptable.”

The partial and full closings of businesses, mandated by Cuomo, were intended to combat rising numbers of COVID-19 cases. However, Palumbo said even though businesses are partially closed, the cases are still increasing.

“The Legislature needs to get involved, we need to get control back,” he said. “We need to get those vaccinations out, and as quickly as possible — not throw them in the garbage.”

Many of the politicians also discussed the bill Cuomo signed into law June 17, which would allow every pharmacist in New York state to administer the COVID-19 vaccine. State Assemblyman Doug Smith (R-Holbrook) demanded to know why the bill has not been put into full force.

“Now we’re in January, governor, where is your plan?” Smith said. “Why is every single pharmacy in the state of New York not able to administer this vaccine?”

 

Groups gathered outside local congressional offices demanding that President Donald Trump (R) be impeached and convicted, and for Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY1) to be expelled from Congress following his vote against the certification of Electoral College ballots. 

On Monday, Jan. 11, the group Suffolk Progressives organized the protest and created a petition, demanding Zeldin leave his position. 

Shoshana Hershkowitz, from South Setauket, who founded the group, said they are against the congressman’s vote challenging the results of the 2020 presidential election — even after the deadly riots at the U.S. Capitol Jan. 6. 

“He continued to talk about his feelings despite the evidence from the country,” Hershkowitz said. “On Jan. 2, he put a tweet out saying this is a lie. … Those words unfortunately they came to fruition on Jan. 6.”

After the mass attack on the Capitol by pro-Trump extremists, Zeldin still voted to object the election of President-elect Joe Biden (D), and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris (D). 

“The combination of all of it, and then going back into the chamber after all of this violence and death, refusing to accept those results, trying to overturn the people … it was mind-blowing,” she said.

Upon Zeldin’s vote, Hershkowitz and her group penned a petition that is now up to nearly 2,000 signatures, calling for his expulsion.  

“I was hoping that after all this he would change his tune,” she said.

On Monday, Jan. 11, a group of more than 100 people gathered outside of Zeldin’s Patchogue office. A smaller group of counter-protesters stood across the street. 

Members further west rallied outside Rep. Tom Suozzi’s (D-NY3) Huntington office, asking him to demand that Zeldin be accountable. Suozzi supports the removal of Trump through the 25th Amendment or impeachment. 

The day of the insurrection, Zeldin released a statement.

“This should never be the scene at the U.S. Capitol,” he said. “This is not the America we all love. We can debate, and we can disagree, even on a January 6th following a presidential election. We can all passionately love our country, but in our republic, we elect people to represent us to voice our objections in the House and Senate on this day.”

He added that there must be “zero tolerance for violence in any form.”

Hershkowitz said she will be sending the petition to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). 

“I believe that these people shouldn’t be sitting in Congress,” the group organizer said.

Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker speaks during a press conference in 2017 about the creation of a permanent panel to address the ever-growing opioid crisis. File photo by Kyle Barr

Suffolk County’s 2020 annual report on the lingering opioid crisis showed an increase in the number of overdoses from the previous year, with experts expressing concern for the impact the pandemic has had on addiction rates.

The Suffolk County Heroin and Opiate Epidemic Advisory Panel released its findings Dec. 29 showing there were 345 fatal overdoses in 2020, which includes pending analysis of some drug overdose cases, according to the county medical examiner’s office. While, on its face, that number did not increase over the past year, nonfatal overdoses climbed by 90 to 1,208, com-pared to 2019, according to Suffolk County police. This increase defies a general trending de-crease in nonfatal overdoses since 2017. Police also reported 910 opioid overdose-antidote na-loxone saves for individuals compared to 863 in 2019.

In some ways more worrying than overall overdose numbers has been the treatment situation on the ground, with professionals in the field reporting an increase in relapses during the pan-demic, according to the report.

Numbers released by police after a May inquiry from TBR News Media showed overdoses were up dramatically when comparing months before the start of the shutdown orders in March to the weeks directly afterward. Medical experts and elected officials all agreed that pandemic-related anxiety, plus the economic downturn and mandated isolation led to increased drug use overall. People in the treatment industry have also said the pandemic has pushed them toward utilizing telehealth.

Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai), the panel chair, said COVID-19 has led to challenges among all county governmental and community agencies, with “overwhelmed hospitals fighting on the frontline, addiction rates skyrocketing with limited resources and economic un-certainty due to business disruption.”

There have been 184 deaths related to opioids in 2020, according to the report, with 161 poten-tial drug overdoses still pending review. Among the North Shore towns, not accounting for those still in review, there were 18 deaths reported in Huntington, 13 in Smithtown and 69 in Brookhaven, the latter of which had the most opioid-related deaths of any Suffolk township. Police data also shows the 6th Precinct bore the brunt of the most overdoses and the most Narcan saves.

National data also bears a grim toll. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Pre-vention’s National Center for Health Statistics there has been a 10% increase in drug overdose deaths from March 2019 to March 2020. Approximately 19,416 died from overdoses in the U.S. in the first three months of 2020, compared to 16,682 in 2019. 

In addition to Suffolk’s report, the advisory panel has sent letters to state and federal reps ask-ing them not to cut any state funding for treatment and prevention and for the state to  sup-port provider reimbursement rates for telehealth and virtual care that are on par with face-to-face rates. They also requested that New York State waives the in-person meeting requirement for people to receive buprenorphine treatment, which can help aid in addiction to painkillers.

County legislators are also touting a new youth addiction panel, which is set to begin meeting in the new year. The county is also continuing its lawsuits against several pharmaceutical com-panies for their hand in starting the opioid epidemic. 

That’s not to say there haven’t been other setbacks in Suffolk’s efforts against opioids. Last Oc-tober, county Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport) was arrested for an alleged at-tempt to trade oxycodone for sex. Spencer was the one to initiate the creation of the youth panel. He has pleaded not guilty, though he has stepped down from his position on the panel, among other responsibilities.

There are currently 29 members on the opioid advisory panel, including representatives from the county Legislature, law enforcement, first responders, treatment centers and shelters.

While Anker thanked current members of the panel for their continued efforts, she said more work is needed.

“The opioid epidemic is an ongoing issue that needs to be addressed continuously from all fronts,” she said.

The Town of Brookhaven and Suffolk County Sheriff Department honored frontline workers, including the town’s Health and Human Services Department and its contracted food workers from Florian Foods. Photo from TOB

It would be impossible to commemorate every government worker in a single article, but the massive number of people busting their back in the midst of the pandemic helped an immeasurable number of residents when the worst was underway, whether they were custodial staff cleaning buildings for people to work in, or post office workers delivering mail, there are innumerable people the community owes their thanks to. 

In this case, it was a collective of government workers from the federal government on down whose job it was to keep those of us in pandemic hot zones up to date. For that, local municipalities depended on small communication offices to relay the most up-to-date and accurate information to both government and citizens, while residents were aided by public safety and food programs for homebound seniors. 

Communications

In any battle or crisis, those on the ground will tell you what helps most is having the latest information possible.

Lisa Santeramo, assistant secretary for intergovernmental affairs under Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), was at the lead in getting the information from New York State on down to the local governments on Long Island. Her office included Theresa Santoro, a Miller Place native who was in charge of reaching out to Suffolk, and Andrew Mulvey, who was in charge of Nassau.

Lisa Santeramo, assistant secretary for the state intergovernmental affairs office, worked alongside Theresa Santoro and Andrew Mulvey to get up-to-date info about the pandemic out to local municipalities. Photo from Santeramo

Santeramo was just coming back from maternity leave at the end of March but suddenly, as infections grew and places started to shut down, the small intergovernmental office was a focal point for every county, town, village, as well as the dozens of civic and chamber of commerce organizations for learning about new regulations, protocols, closings and reopenings. For months, Santeramo said her office was performing multiple daily calls with different groups from town supervisors to village leadership. They were also sending out constant email updates to inform what changes were happening, even during the middle of the day.

“On Long Island, we have these nuances we have to work through, such as all the different layers of government,” she said. “I joked with electeds that we were spamming their inboxes, but more information is better.”

It was a constant rush of sending information up and down the chain of government. Down the line was Nicole Amendola, the director of intergovernmental affairs for Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D). Amendola rose through the ranks to become director in April, and where she and others in the executive’s office worked long hours to supply local government with the latest information.

Amendola, who reiterated it was a team effort, said that along with her communication work, she was also on the side of making sure different bodies such as fire departments or hospitals were getting the PPE or resources they needed.

“Things were changing so rapidly, not even from the state but even from the federal level, so we had to make sure that we were able to communicate properly and efficiently to all levels of government,” she said. “The work, definitely, was very, very top heavy in terms of hours in the beginning of everything because there was just so much we didn’t know and understand, and things were literally constantly changing.”

Once new regulations and lockdowns were underway, any new information coming in from the governor’s office was immediately poured through. Both state and county offices watched every one of the governor’s daily press conferences to make sure they could get that info to local government. 

Even with such things as trick-or-treating for Halloween, Amendola said they made it their jobs to let people know what was permitted and what was not. When people complained about what was or wasn’t allowed to open and which businesses were included in which reopening phases, their office also sent those complaints back up the chain as well.

Others in local governing offices made consistent remarks to TBR News Media on the good job both Santeramo and Amendola’s offices did during this hectic time. Their near-daily updates on COVID-19, what regulations and what restrictions may have changed, was a huge boon for people struggling to make heads or tails of what they needed to do. 

Now that numbers are spiking, both offices are on constant calls about what may or may not be coming down the pike. And with vaccines also in play, a new kind of communications blitz is incoming.

“I never thought I’d have to deal with people’s safety,” Santeramo said. “But this year and the work we did, it will be the most important work I think I’ll ever do in my life.” 

Public Safety

The year 2020 is going to go down in the record books locally not just because of the pandemic but because of other major events throughout the year. The May killing of Minneapolis man George Floyd sparked waves of protests throughout the country, including several largely peaceful demonstrations on Long Island. Interactions between law enforcement and protesters in Suffolk were mostly harmonious, but in a few places the reaction to those protests grew into a hotbed of misinformation and rumor, especially in the Town of Smithtown. While officials tried to quash those rumors, it was the Smithtown Department of Public Safety that was in the middle of the storm, both figuratively — and it turned out later in 2020 — quite literally.

The Town of Smithtown Public Safety Department made several water rescues during the summer 2020; just one of a few complications to a complicated year. Photo from Thomas Lohmann Jr.

Thomas Lohmann Jr., director of the town public safety office, said when the pandemic first hit, their office was in charge of restricting who could and could not enter town buildings, as well as handling the distribution of PPE throughout Smithtown. While other offices were being cut or shut down, Lohmann’s, with his 55 or so sworn officers and 50 additional civilian staff, was seeing a rapid need for more assistance.

“Everybody here really had to step up and work,” he said. “The communications section, which not only do they dispatch — we also serve three fire departments in the township — and they were extremely busy handling alarms for COVID-19 calls.”

Once things started to reopen, they were there in the local community enforcing restrictions on beaches and in parks. This year, with more boaters out on the water, they completed several water rescues. In enforcing compliance, Lohmann said it was not so much about shutting down businesses as much as talking with owners face-to-face to get them to meet restrictions.

“We recognize the businesses were faced with challenges, and from early onset what we focused on was voluntary compliance,” he said.

During Tropical Storm Isaias in August, the town safety office also became engaged in the work of checking up on people who lacked power. The year 2020 has been fraught with challenges, but for many law enforcement out there, as COVID numbers have risen dramatically in the past two months, the work does not stop.

“We can’t hang a shingle and say we’re shutting down,” Lohmann said, “We’re doing everything we can.”

Government Meal Programs

When the pandemic was at its zenith in late March and early April, the thousands of people who relied on government meal programs found themselves at an even greater loss, unable to get out of the house to even go to the local deli. As senior centers and government offices closed, the many people responsible for getting people food did not back down.

The Suffolk County Office for the Aging works with towns throughout Suffolk in their weekly meal programs. Holly Rhodes-Teague, who heads up the office, is not only in charge of a network of meal programs throughout the 10 towns, she had to keep up with case management, home care, transportation and home repair to allow older adults to remain at home while the pandemic raged outside.

The Town of Brookhaven and Suffolk County Sheriff Department honored frontline workers, including the town’s Health and Human Services Department and its contracted food workers from Florian Foods. Photo from TOB

Before COVID hit, the office was helping to arrange meals for around 2,700 seniors in congregate programs and home deliveries. Once the shutdowns occurred, that jumped to 4,200 people. To this day, those numbers have only slightly dropped to a little over 4,000 folks who depend on these daily meals.

“We were able to transition overnight to adding onto home delivery — we took the current program and made it into a grab-and-go type program for meals,” Rhodes-Teague said. “It was amazing how fast they did that. They didn’t skip more than a day.”

And it wasn’t just food. Through the towns, Holly-Teague said they managed to give out items like hand sanitizer and toilet paper, especially when such items were vacant on store shelves. In between everything, her office was calling elders, some of whom are over 100 years old, to just check up and see how they were doing. In one instance, a caseworker could not get a hold of one of their clients after August’s tropical storm. After visiting the elder at home, the caseworker found the electricity was gone, and the person’s life support had gone out.

“All our people stepped up to the plate,” she said.

In the individual towns, the separate Meals on Wheels programs were suddenly inundated. Laura Greif, Smithtown’s senior citizens program director, said the number of seniors they service doubled during the beginning stages of the pandemic, to over 320 meals a day. What made the situation harder was they had half the staff on, and half off. Other staff within the town came through to help instead. With the Smithtown Senior Center closed to visitors, she said they were making over 2,000 calls to elder folk within the town to check up on them regularly.

Once things calmed down, she said her crew even started taking some seniors food shopping. She thanked everyone who worked with her.

“In the beginning it was difficult as we were half-staffed,” Greif said. “Without such an amazing staff and town, it would have been difficult to get it all done. We’re very happy to do this much-needed service.”

Alison Karppi, commissioner of Housing & Human Services at the Town of Brookhaven, said before the pandemic they were supplying meals to 130 homebound seniors, plus those in their congregate program. Once the senior centers closed, that number jumped to over 500 seniors a day. Additionally, the town’s senior citizen division delivered 208 boxes of food to residents in need through Suffolk County’s food insecurity program.

It would take a whole host of Brookhaven employees to reach every single one of those who needed food every day, and not just those from HHS. Workers from other town offices such as the parks department would become drivers to get meals out to seniors spread throughout over 500 square miles. Karppi said unlike other municipalities that were forced to make meals cold, thanks to the town’s cafeteria in Town Hall and its food contractor, Florian Food Service, Brookhaven was regularly sending out warm meals to its seniors. 

Making sure the food stayed warm took a whole lot of effort on the part of multiple employees, and Karppi wanted to thank all those drivers whose constant work provided such a necessary service, as well as Dawn Marcasia, who created the route list for drivers every day of the week. Delivering meals also served as a way to check up on seniors, and when there was no response at the door, that information was passed onto the senior citizen division.

Through all of that, the town workers helped deliver over 75,000 meals to seniors at their homes from March through December. 

Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) expressed how this service has been critical, even as we’re still not out of the woods yet.

“This pandemic is far from over, we’re at least another year anywhere back to where we were before,” he said. “This has been a lifeline to so many of these people.”

The Sunshine Prevention Center in Port Jefferson Station has worked to make sure its students had coursework during the pandemic, even driving materials home to students. Photo by Kyle Barr

When the first weeks of the pandemic hit, when everything from restaurants to gyms to playgrounds were being shut down, schools were forced closed as well.

As the many different districts across Long Island scrambled to implement distance learning, a new crisis loomed. For the many men and women who still worked, especially those on the frontlines in hospitals or elder care facilities, they could no longer depend on school districts to take care of their children for most of the day. 

George Duffy, the CEO of SCOPE Education Services, was instrumental in providing child care during the pandemic’s early months. Photo from SCOPE

And as parents scrambled to find ways to take care of their children, a few groups stepped up to the plate. Many parents owe a great deal to those organizations that took care of their children during the pandemic’s worst months, many of whom were trailblazers for what kids would come to expect when schools finally reopened in later months.

Organizations from all over kept their child care services going when they were needed most. The Huntington YMCA, while suspending many of its other youth and adult programs, kept running its child care services and food pickups for families. This was even amongst huge economic hardship caused by the loss of membership dues. 

Eileen Knauer, senior vice president of operations for YMCA of Long Island, said their child care programs ran for four months out of their Huntington facility as well as a school in the South Huntington school district, up until their summer camp programs started again. While it initially ran free of charge for parents, having been supported by stipends from the school district and Northwell Health, they did end up having to charge parents some cost for the program. For those parents who did not have enough to pay, they fundraised to help support their children.

“The ‘Y’ is here for our community — we respond to what the community tells us we need,” Knauer said. 

SCOPE Education Services, a Smithtown-based nonprofit chartered by the New York State Board of Regents, operates child care programs all over Long Island. Though SCOPE normally works with school districts from all over, in March, when districts were mandated to provide child care even while their buildings were closed to normal activity, they turned to SCOPE, according to George Duffy, executive director. 

The nonprofit operated 25 locations throughout Long Island to provide that child care, with more than 800 children in total enrolled. From March through August, SCOPE workers kept children in safe spaces, allowing them an opportunity to socialize when many were feeling the emotional constraints of isolation.

Though districts pay a weekly stipend to help run the program, for parents who desperately needed people to take care of their children while working, it was effectively free.

Lori Innella-Venne, a district manager for SCOPE operating in the Huntington area, said it was soon after the closures were coming into effect that she and her workers sat together to come up with a plan, creating something entirely new on the fly, even when restrictions and medical advice seemed to be changing on a daily basis. Despite all that, the program never saw a positive COVID-19 case amongst its children, she said.

“We took one breath when schools closed and we immediately got to work, reimagining how we did everything,” Innella-Venne said.

Over in Rocky Point, the North Shore Youth Council, a nonprofit that services districts from Mount Sinai to Shoreham-Wading River, was also caught up in that first COVID wave that crashed upon Suffolk County. Their summer camp, which featured 100 kids, was so effective in its procedures that it did not see a positive case in the several months the program ran.

NSYC Executive Director Robert Woods said they also had the benefit of good relationships with the Rocky Point school district, and that it was the district’s custodial staff who were “rock stars” in helping to prepare children for these activities. 

It was difficult, of course. Children could not even play board games together. Innella-Venne said they had to draw up an entirely new curriculum. Activities had to focus on being spaced apart. Equipment that was once shared now had to be restricted to individuals, and then sanitized after use.

“When we were still waiting for guidelines to come out, we already had a fully realized program, one that we found well within the guidelines and in some cases exceeded them,” she said. “There was fear in the beginning, but also incredible pride for what we were able to accomplish.”

The Huntington YMCA struggled during the pandemic but still offered childcare during the peak months. File photo by Victoria Espinoza

Once school started again, the demand for child care did not relax. The youth council’s afterschool program now follows in the footsteps of the local school districts’ cohort system, following those so that they don’t mix students who may have been kept separate for a significant time. They also developed a kind of study hall for those students in the hybrid model who are studying electronically, allowing parents to work even when their children are not allowed inside schools, according to Cyndi Donaldson, the youth council’s school-age child care program director.

Knauer said the YMCA has also started a program to allow children a place to do their remote work while their parents are at their jobs. Though that program had stalled once students were allowed back in school full time, it will likely start up again after December as the number of COVID cases climb and local districts expect to take a longer-than-normal Christmas break.

“If you’re a working parent, you don’t have the luxury of taking time off,” she said.

There are so many stressors with young people having to deal with so much, whether it was hearing the news and the number of people dying, or it was seeing the anxieties of their parents. It was especially hard on more at-risk kids, the kind of population serviced by The Sunshine Center in Port Jefferson Station. Carol Carter, CEO/co-founder of the organization, said they had to transfer much of their child care services online once the pandemic struck, whether it was live on Facebook or YouTube, or constant calls to catch up with parents and their children on what was happening. They took to driving out to children’s households with homework and activities or even food, trying to keep those participants engaged. The center created a blessing box where needy parents could pick up supplies and food that were donated by the wider community.

“We knew immediately how important support was through this time,” she said. “Our main focus was on positive social skills. People were feeling anxiety and other tough feelings, so developing coping skills, problem-solving skills and communication skills that kids could use during this time was important.”

All program directors agreed that their services provided a kind of stability for children during a tumultuous year.

“A parent said to me the other day that our programs are the only constant in their childs’ lives,” Woods said. “Their children look forward to coming to our programs, they are able to socialize in a different way. They are a thriving testament to what [our organization] does.”

Just like many businesses and other organizations during the pandemic, COVID has hurt their bottom line. Knauer said the YMCA is currently running at 50% below their normal revenue, as membership dues have dropped off significantly. She said anybody looking to start memberships or to donate can contact her through the YMCA at 631-421-4242.

Other programs also operated at a loss.

“SCOPE ended up losing money,” Duffy said. “We thought they were going to be running this for four-to-six weeks. We ended up running it for six months.”

But for the nonprofit service, the point was to provide that niche when it was needed.

NSYC camp councilors stood with 100 young people who participated in this year’s Summer Buddies camp, where there were no reported infections. Photo from NSYC

“We felt it was a valuable service that benefited families and the community,” Duffy said. “We were happy to do it — it kept people employed who would have been forced to do something drastic, like leave their job.”

The child care services were truly the first bulwark of dealing with children and students in a pandemic. Both SCOPE and NSYC officials said school districts reached out to them when coming up with their own procedures when reopening in September.

“A lot of school districts looked at what we did over the summer, asked for our input, and a lot of what they’re doing now is what we did in March,” Duffy said. 

The work of these and other groups has been recognized by both school districts and parents. SCOPE has received numerous positive comments from superintendents from Brentwood to Middle Country to Comsewogue. One of the districts SCOPE operated in was Miller Place, where Marianne Cartisano, the MP superintendent, said her district would not have been able to come out of the first-wave months still with their feet under them if it weren’t for Duffy and his program.

“Parents would come back and say, ‘I didn’t worry about my child today,’” Cartisano said.

St. Catherine Chief Nursing Officer Mary Jane Finnegan gives a flu shot during a free mobile clinic at the end of September. Photo from St. Catherine hospital

They lost patients, sleep and time with their families and yet, through some of the most difficult conditions in over a century, they persevered, brought together by the shared goal of saving lives threatened by the pandemic.

The Times Beacon Record Newspapers is pleased to honor the health care workers who put themselves in harm’s way to offer comfort, cures and solutions for COVID-19.

State Sen. Jim Gaughran (D-Northport) described health care workers as “heroes beyond belief.” He added, “There are folks who have gotten sick and died, simply because they were just doing their jobs.”

Unusual Requests

Indeed, in some cases, these health care workers took on tasks that aren’t typically a part of their job description or training.

Tricia Coffey on the phone at Huntington Hospital. Photo from Coffey

Take Kristen Thomas, a registered nurse at Mather Hospital in Port Jefferson. A priest came up to her in the halls of the hospital to ask for an unusual favor. A person had died and the family, who couldn’t be by his side, asked for last rites. The priest knew he couldn’t enter the room.

He asked, “Would you mind taking holy water and anointing the patient?”

She approached the patient, made the sign of the cross and prayed, as the priest stood outside the door.

“A moment like that, you never really plan to do that,” Thomas said. “We tried to give the family a little bit of closure. They didn’t get to attend the normal [rituals].”

For the community and health care workers, normal took on new meaning, especially in the first few months of the pandemic, when Suffolk County became an epicenter of the virus.

With family unable to sit by the bedside, nurses often stepped up, holding up iPad and phones so the family could spend time together virtually.

Marilin Dilone, Emergency Department nurse at Stony Brook University Hospital, called the young family of one of her patients.

Marilin Dilone, emergency department nurse at SBUH decked in full PPE gear. Photo from SBUH

His wife “put the baby on the phone — the baby looked like he was maybe 10 months old. The baby was making noises. I swear [the patient] opened his eyes. The wife is crying. Such a moment, we take for granted. He could hear her say, ‘I love you.’ To be able to provide that was very humbling for me.”

Like Dilone and so many other nurses, Robert Collins, a nurse at Mather Hospital ,shared how he held an iPad up to patients whose conditions were deteriorating so they could say goodbye to their families.

He had to stay in the room because some of the patients couldn’t hold the iPad.

“You do that once or twice, it kind of sticks with you,” Collins said.

Deep Connections

The connections the medical staff made to the families of patients extended well beyond the typical interactions.

“We had patients for an extended period of time,” said Patricia Coffey, nurse manager of the Critical Care Unit at Huntington Hospital.

Coffey, who spent 11 weeks actively caring for patients as her managerial duties “went to the wayside,” said the staff talked to families for extended periods of time. She spoke with some families daily, spending as much as two-and-a-half hours each day on the phone.

The nurses felt like members of the family because the normal support system couldn’t provide bedside support.

“You were channeling the family to the patient,” Coffey said. The nurses were “rooting so hard” for the patients.

When one of those patients who was in the hospital died after a long battle, she said it was “unbelievably heartbreaking — you felt like one of your own family members had died.”

She still keeps in touch with family members.

Mather Nurse Robert Collins. Photo from Mather

Coffey said one of her neighbors was admitted to the hospital with COVID and was on her floor. Coffey’s children and her neighbor’s children grew up together and their daughters were friends.

She not only spoke with his wife every day during her 60-hour weeks, but she also called her coworkers over the weekend to ask how he was doing.

The conversations with the neighbor’s wife were “a little hard. I wanted to be honest with her. He was very critical. At the same time, I was trying to be hopeful. It was a hard balance.”

Coffey said he was “one of the lucky ones who survived.”

Dilone of SBUH described how the work was more physically demanding.

She would “try not to ask for people” as she didn’t want to expose others if it wasn’t necessary. “You are taking care of patients more by yourself, turning them and doing chest PT [physiotherapy] — it was physically more demanding,” Dilone said.

Dark Moments

Watching patients who died took its toll, even on people who have been in the medical profession for decades.

MaryJane Finnegan, chief nursing officer at St. Catherine of Siena Medical Center in Smithtown, described the unusually high number of people dying from the virus. The hospital was running out of space for the dead. The morgue was filled and an additional refrigeration truck outside also filled quickly.

Mather Nurse Kristen Thomas. Photo from Mather

“One day, eight people died — usually in a week, you can have eight people die, but not eight in a day,” Finnegan said.

Nikki Fiore-Lopez, chief nursing officer at St. Charles Hospital in Port Jefferson said a nurse was present for the death of her mentor. Watching her die was “one of the darkest moments” for the nurse, Fiore-Lopez said.

Many medical professionals encouraged their patients to fight through the worst of the virus.

Stony Brook’s Dilone stayed with a patient whose blood oxygen level kept dropping. She wouldn’t let him fall asleep because she was worried he’d get intubated. She reminded him of his family and that he needed to help himself.

“I felt like Nurse Ratched,” Dilone said, referring to the dreaded nurse from the movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

Dilone spent hours with this patient. Later, a doctor told her keeping the man awake prevented him from getting intubated.

Unexpected Challenges

With a virus no one had battled before, health care workers had to be flexible, learning about everything from new protocols for admitting patients to the latest and best treatments.

Chief Nursing Officer at St. Charles hospital Nikki Fiore-Lopez delivers flowers to patients at Christmas with Foundation Board Chair member Doug Casimir in 2019. Photo from St. Charles

The staff had to confront the “speed with which everything changed,” said Dr. Eric Morley, associate professor and clinical director in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Stony Brook University’s Renaissance School of Medicine. “Every day, there were new protocols, new ways to deal with things.”

Hospitals had to create a forward triage system to deal with the flood of COVID patients amid all the other potential emergencies hospitals routinely have.

These efforts required hundreds of employees to “get on the same people to sort people out,” Morley said. Training staff to manage the flow of patients required constant communication.

Even some of the smaller elements of managing the crisis took Morley’s time, such as getting new traffic signs to direct people to an alternate site.

Hospital managers were continually confronted with numerous unexpected challenges.

Ken Roberts, president of Mather Hospital, said the hospital had to ensure the PPE was hospital grade and not counterfeit.

“There were a lot of suspicious and unscrupulous suppliers when supply and demand was unbalanced, and everyone was in crisis,” he explained in an email.

Health care workers tapped into their personal skills to connect with patients.

Angel Figueroa, a registered respiratory therapist at SBUH who grew up in New York City and learned Spanish thanks to his Puerto Rican heritage, walked into some rooms and spoke Spanish to patients.

When he greeted patients in Spanish, “I would see their eyes open up [and think], ‘Somebody understands me.’”

They would ask him numerous questions, particularly because the medical information came at them so quickly. 

Mather’s Collins described how the routine changed so dramatically the moment he arrived at work.

Mather President Ken Roberts holds a sign thanking health care workers. Photo from Mather

“Rapid response bells were going off as soon as you walked in,” he said. “You didn’t take your coat off” before patients needed attention. “People were not doing well. That was happening more frequently than before. That was an adjustment.”

On the other side of the struggle, health care workers felt a tremendous sense of relief when patients continued their recoveries at home.

“When people were discharged, the staff was thrilled,” St. Catherine’s Finnegan said. “We’d play the [Beatles] song, ‘Here Comes the Sun.’ A lot of hospitals did that. People would gather as many as possible to wish the person well as they were wheeled out.”

Teamwork

Through the difficulties, though, Morley appreciated the support from the community and the families, along with the teamwork and camaraderie from so many departments and staff that all pulled together.

Roberts expressed similar sentiments.

“I was extremely pleased at the teamwork displayed by all hospital staff during the height of the pandemic,” he said.

The Mather president was also grateful for the letters, cards, donated meals, handmade masks and donated PPE.

“The local communities we serve gave us and continue to give us tremendous support and encouragement,” Roberts said. “That has meant so much to the staff to know that the community was supporting them and recognizing their efforts.”

Stony Brook Respiratory Therapist Angel Figueroa wearing mask and shield. Photo from SBUH

Coffey, from Huntington Hospital, was impressed with how, even amid such extraordinary and challenging times, numerous groups collaborated.

“In many ways there were positive things — the community, the team, everyone working together,” she said. “Parts of it were so uplifting. As hard and as difficult and sad and heart wrenching [as it was], so many other parts, you just saw such humanity. It was amazing.” 

Lasting Thoughts

Finnegan said the staff was incredibly appreciative of all the food local restaurants donated.

In fact, some of them joke that they gained the “COVID-19,” referring to the weight they put on while they were working numerous shifts and benefiting from all the donated food.

Morley “rediscovered” Twinkies during COVID in the break room. He has since been able to lose the weight the snack cakes added.

While gyms were closed, Collins relieved stress by buying a 400-pound tractor-trailer tire that he flipped up and down along his driveway. He also took a sledgehammer and “beat on it.”

The exertion would make him tired enough that the stress would dissipate for the day.

Dr. Eric Morley from SBU participates in COVID testing. Photo from SBU

Ultimately, what made an ever-expanding job — that affected so many aspects of health care workers’ personal and professional lives — manageable was the shared sense of purpose and the inspiration people drew from each other.

“The fact that the staff was out there doing it” helped give her energy, St. Charles’ Fiore-Lopez said. “We had patients to care for, we had shifts. We had days and weeks and months to get through. They put one foot in front of the other and I needed to do the same.”

Morley appreciated the way the Stony Brook staff pulled together during an intense and challenging time.

“Although it was grueling, it was a special thing to go through with that group of people,” he said.

For the first time, people could choose to complete the U.S. Census online, by phone, or by mail. Stock photo

By Iryna Shkurhan

The 2020 Census couldn’t have come at a more inconvenient time. 

I was one of the half million people employed by the U.S. Census Bureau this year enlisted in the follow-up operation for non-respondents. When I applied to be an enumerator in Suffolk county in January, I couldn’t imagine that I would be going door to door in the midst of a pandemic. 

Iryna Shkurhan

When Census Day came April 1, enumerators were set to start visiting the homes of millions of non-respondents, but in person operations were postponed indefinitely as many states entered lockdowns. Around the same, the bureau formed an outreach and ad campaign to encourage Americans to respond online for the first time, or by phone or mail.

When drafting the Constitution, the nation’s founders mandated a count of the populace to be held every decade, starting in the 1790s, with the main goal of getting a count of every single person living in the United States. Included was questions on age, sex, race, relationship in the household and home ownership form data that paints a picture of who makes up the country. 

This information is crucial to determine congressional representation and allocating hundreds of billions in federal funding, for education, hospitals, roads and healthcare. The data that will directly affect the resources that communities across the country will receive for the next decade. For a government to represent people and fairly fund its programs, it has to know how many people there are and where they live, making the census initiative crucial for democracy. 

Enumerators typically work in their communities because their familiarity with the area helps in locating homes and also establishes trust and mutual understanding with respondents. Still, the questions are personal, and not everyone wants to share that information with a stranger. 

I always let people know that they had the option to refuse a question, if they were not comfortable answering. The question that mattered most was how many people lived in a household, which was used for the population count. The other questions had their own importance, but less so. 

I was issued a badge, a preprogrammed iPhone 8 and a messenger bag filled with various information sheets and a clipboard. In past decades the clipboard would’ve gotten more use. 

But this is the first year that the Census Bureau was collecting data digitally, allowing people to respond online, and enumerators to use mobile apps to record data. Enumerators no longer had to just record information with a pen and paper on their clipboards.

With the unpredictability of the pandemic, no one knew when and if in-person operations would continue, but in August I received a phone call asking if I would be willing to work for 4-8 weeks depending on when the count would be completed. I began working in the Stony Brook area less than ten minutes from my home. The number of cases I was assigned ranged from 20 to 70, depending on how many hours of availability I entered. Some days when I would work eight hours, I was assigned up to 80 nonresponse follow up cases. 

While on duty I imagined how different it must have been to be an enumerator ten years ago, before technology made the role much simpler. Now all I had to do was click on an assigned case and the GPS would direct me there. If a resident was home and willing to respond, the questions and answer options would pop up in the correct order on my screen. I never had to write anything more than a case number on paper. The apps on the issued iPhone were used to report for work, view assignments, track hours and mileage, and navigate to households.

The biggest challenge I ran into was a reluctance to answer. In the 20 hours of virtual training, I was taught the appropriate response for almost every type of reason a person is hesitant to share information, whether it’s privacy concerns, or distrust of the government. But many people were set in their decision and refused to cooperate, with many disputing my attempts at easing their fears and persuading them to cooperate. 

Enumerators also had a list of addresses to stay away from, which were marked as dangerous. These cases were marked with a caution sign on the map and signified that the resident was hostile, or violent in some way to an enumerator. In some cases, people were physically threatened and yelled at, and we were discouraged from attempting these homes alone. 

I witnessed a polar difference between the people who were happy to answer any questions and viewed it as a civic duty and those who avoided us at all costs and slammed the door in my face. I understood that people’s attitudes to their personal data was shifting, but living in a polarized county where the census became politicized didn’t help. With disinformation about the census floating around, explaining the purpose of the census, and the importance of each question, became a main part of my job. 

Another challenge was the technical difficulties that came with digital collection being implemented for the first time. Issues were bound to come up during the transition, but there were times where mid interview, the phone would crash, and I would have to restart all over. Other times my cases wouldn’t load, or I was sent to homes that were already visited by a dozen enumerators, with residents not hiding their annoyance. 

The sense of urgency was made apparent by higher ups as they offered incentives to work overtime and on weekends, when people were more likely to be home. Several bonuses were offered for working more than forty hours a week, and working Sundays and nights came with a higher pay rate. Initially, we had to request permission for overtime, but within a week that was scrapped. We were encouraged to work as much as possible to ensure everyone was counted. 

Once Setauket and neighboring regions were fully completed, I was sent out farther east to Riverhead, then farther to Orient and Mattituck. After the entirety of Suffolk County was counted, enumerators were offered to drive to other states, as far as Alabama to help complete the counting efforts there. 

One overnight shift was set aside to count the homeless population, which the pandemic made harder to account for. The Census was also forced to come up with new ways to count college students, who many towns depend on to get the adequate funding. 

In the few weeks I worked as an enumerator, there were difficult days but also rewarding ones. A certain satisfaction came with finally getting to interview a household that kept reappearing on my case list. With each case I closed, we came closer to reaching the goal. Little acts of kindness like some people offering to put their masks on, or a chair to sit on and a drink on a hot day, went a long way. 

Iryna Shkurhan is a junior at Stony Brook University majoring in political science, with a minor in journalism. She is an incoming editorial intern for TBR News Media.