If the coronavirus pandemic has been a lesson in how important investing in public health can be, Kearny was certainly taking notes.
An aging building the town transformed into a local health hub early in the pandemic proved so useful that the town plans to replace it with a new building to house a health department annex permanently, said Kearny Mayor Al Santos.
The site at 50 Belgrove Drive has made services such as food distributions and COVID-19 testing more accessible to residents of the town closer to East Newark, Santos said. The Health Department’s main building is close to two miles north.
“We have to get the services to where the residents are,” the mayor said. “Not everyone drives. Not everyone can get to a central location. Not everyone is close to a bus route. So this is a location that I think will service a good component of our community and provide the services that I think even post pandemic will continue to be critical services.”
Those services may include Narcan training or flu clinics in a post-pandemic world, he suggested. Plus, for any future health crises that occur, an extra location for the Kearny Health Department to mobilize out of will already exist, he said.
Kearny also provides health services to East Newark through an agreement that predates COVID-19.
“Health services have always been a critical part of what municipalities deliver, and an underappreciated part until COVID,” Santos said.
The new building would be about the size of the existing prefab trailer, which fits three offices and a bathroom, the mayor said. At about 40 years old, the old building needs to either be rehabilitated or replaced, said Town Administrator Stephen Marks.
To fund the project, Kearny plans to use a federal grant it received from the first coronavirus aid bill that was designated for a healthcare-related use in a low to moderate income area, Marks said. It has $724,321 available.
“We will make sure that the building is designed in a way to maximize the funding that is available so as not to burden any local taxpayers,” Marks said.
The town is currently awaiting authorization from the county to use the funds for the project, and once it is approved, he said it will likely take 12 to 15 months to complete.
The trailer was formerly a police substation, Santos said, an attempt to address crime in that part of town. It wasn’t as effective as the town wanted, and the trailer was decommissioned until COVID-19 hit.
It sits in a municipal parking lot with spaces that residents rent. Santos said he still wants all of those spaces to be available for use.