Friday, May 14, 2021

County ends full remote status for workers, transitions closer to normalcy

BELLEFONTE — County employees who have been working remotely since November will begin transitioning back to their offices with a modified rotation beginning in May.

The county commissioners agreed to the move during an April 27 board meeting.

“We want to do this cautiously and slowly over the next several weeks, but the trend is down,” said county Administrator Margaret Gray.

To assess the move, the county considered the number of COVID cases, the rate of hospitalization and the impact of the virus on county workers.

Since the remote status was last extended two weeks ago on April 13, the countywide COVID positivity rate has gone slightly downward, said Gray, but the county is still considered to be in the substantial range for positivity.

Over that timeframe, the number of hospitalizations has gone down significantly, said Gray.

“Two weeks ago, (Mount Nittany Medical Center) were at a high over the last two months and they have trended down in a significant way, although the hospital is still concerned about the number they are seeing,” said Gray.

On April 27, the Pennsylvania Department of Health reported that MNMC was treating 27 COVID-19 inpatients — eight fewer than on April 26.

The patients ranged in age from 34 to 93, according to a hospital spokesperson. Centre County reported 43 new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday to bring its total to 16,182, according to the Department of Health.

Gray said cases among county workers have also gone down, as has the number of employees who have had to quarantine in April as opposed to March.

“With these factors in mind and also knowing that more and more people have received vaccinations, we think we are kind of at the cusp here, and could move safely from a full remote status to a modified rotation of our workforce,” said Gray.

She added that the county will continue to emphasize the importance of masking, vaccinations and social distancing.

As of April 27, 47,947 people in Centre County have been fully vaccinated and 21,801 are partially covered.

All three commissioners agreed with the recommendation to move forward with the modified rotational schedule for employees in May.

The model, which was used by county workers last summer and fall, will have county workers rotate days in the office, allowing for a lower number of employees in county buildings.

“This is being done in a mindful and judicious way as we progress and have more people in the building. I think it is a good way to do it. From a public standpoint, we are not opening our doors yet, but this would allow us to begin the transition to bring employees back in the building,” said board Chairman Michael Pipe.

Commissioner Mark Higgins said it would be important for department heads to be flexible with employees who need to set up daycare for their children as they come back to the office.

Pipe agreed, saying, “I think we need an adequate runway for this. And I think that is what we will be looking at to make sure that people have the supports that are there.”

Gray added that when the county eventually moves back to normalcy with employees back in the office full-time, the county will “need to provide a significant runway to make arrangements for childcare so employees are not caught off guard.” “As we think about a full return-to-office date, that will be especially important,” said Gray. The county will re-evaluate worker status in a month.