GOSHEN — The health commissioner who has guided Orange County through the COVID-19 pandemic is leaving her post after four years to oversee a larger health department for a much larger Long Island county.
dr Irina Gelman is expected to start work as Nassau County Health Commissioner in September, overseeing public health programs in a county of 1.4 million people, more than three times the size of Orange. She replaces Dr. Lawrence Eisenstein, who has resigned after 11 years as Nassau’s health commissioner. His last day at work was Friday.
Gelman, 41, was hired by Orange County in 2018 after four years as the director of public health in Fulton County, a county of 53,000 near Albany, and previously as a podiatrist. She makes $173,400 a year at Orange as director of a department that currently has 141 employees, including eight in the coroner’s office and 37 hired on grants.
She said she will oversee nearly 200 employees in Nassau County. Her salary for this position could not be determined as of Wednesday. Eisenstein’s projected salary that year was $235,700.
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Gelman had been on duty in Orange County for less than two years when the coronavirus hit New York in early 2020, sparking a public health crisis. The rampant infections, hospitalizations, and deaths that followed pushed Gelman and her colleagues in the US into prominent and demanding roles as coordinators of the medical response and daily voices of guidance to the public.
Looking back, no single phase of the extended pandemic stands out as tougher or more stressful than others. What she remembers is the sheer duration, working 12 to 16 hour days for months at a time and keeping a sleeping bag at the county emergency center for overnight stays.
“It was definitely just endless,” Gelman said in an interview, calling the bombardment of pandemic challenges “a relentless assault on all fronts” and “very exhausting.”
The pandemic took a heavy toll on Orange for more than two years. As of Wednesday, 1,185 residents in the county had died from COVID-19 and 1,488 currently had active cases of the virus, including 21 people who were hospitalized with severe symptoms.
Adding to the brutal COVID-19 pandemic, Gelman’s tenure at Orange has been bookended by episodes of infectious diseases. Orange and neighboring Rockland counties experienced measles outbreaks in 2018 and 2019. And on Tuesday, Orange County officials revealed traces of the poliovirus were found in sewage at two locations in the county, less than two weeks after the United States’ first polio case in years was diagnosed in Rockland.
“It is discouraging to see a resurgence in polio, a disease that was largely eradicated long ago,” Gelman said in announcing this discovery in certain areas of our county.”
Gelman said the lasting lesson she has learned from the COVID-19 ordeal is the need for health officials to better communicate with the public, media and medical providers, both locally and nationally.
“We need to improve all of our public health communications,” she said.
Gelman, who says she is “very, very proud of the Herculean response” of her employees to the pandemic, will be speaking with her colleagues from around the world on the very subject next week.
She will be making this presentation at the four-day International Conference on Emerging Infectious Diseases being hosted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at an Atlanta hotel. The gathering is expected to attract more than 1,500 public health professionals and is the first of its kind since pre-pandemic 2018. Gelman is one of three speakers scheduled for a 90-minute session Tuesday on “Pandemic Preparedness and Response.”
She said Orange was one of the first counties to start testing sewage to monitor COVID-19 levels and alert communities if outbreaks appeared to be developing. She hopes that in the future, the ordeal of the pandemic will encourage governments to be more aware of emerging diseases and increase funding for public health staffing and disease prevention.
Orange County officials are still putting up resumes for candidates to replace Gelman and will likely appoint an acting commissioner to fill that role after she leaves until a new commissioner is hired.
Chris McKenna reports on government and politics for the Times Herald-Record and USA Today Network. Reach him at email@example.com.