Local public health departments have struggled to respond to a rise in overdose deaths and the COVID-19 pandemic over the last 20 months amid a shortfall in staffing, the organization that represents officials told state lawmakers on Wednesday. 

At issue are a range of funding problems that have affected public health departments, including tighter budgets and reimbursement struggles, said Sarah Ravenhall, the executive director of the New York State Association of County Health Officials. 

“The urgent need to ensure a sustainable and effective public health system could not be more clear," she told lawmakers at a public hearing on the spike in overdose deaths. "Our place in time is unique. New York state has the leadership, the wisdom and the funding sources available to renew our commitment to public health. We must seize this rare opportunity."

Lawmakers on Wednesday took testimony on the ongoing concerns stemming from the spike in overdose deaths that have coincided with the pandemic since 2020. The nationwide trend has also been seen in New York, and lawmakers Wednesday said they wanted to address ways of solving what have turned into twin and intersecting health concerns. 

One solution would be use opioid settlement funding generated in the last several months to provide for programs at local-level government health agencies, Ravenhall said. At the same time, the state could provide matching funds for counties that are investigating unattended deaths and include health departments as eligible grant recipients for prevention and harm reduction work.