Bayonne and WNY continue to share health officer

Health Officer Michele O'Reilly serves both towns

Bayonne Health Officer Michele O'Reilly gave a COVID-19 update in February of 2021.
Bayonne Health Officer Michele O'Reilly gave a COVID-19 update in February of 2021.

The Bayonne City Council has approved a resolution extending for another year its shared services agreement for a health officer with WNY. Michele O’Reilly is health officer for both municipalities.

The council voted unanimously to advance the measure at its July meeting.

Sharing services

The move first came in June 2020 after West New York ended its shared services agreement with North Bergen amid the COVID-19 pandemic. West New York and North Bergen first penned the agreement in 2018, after West New York abolished its health department as part of what town officials at the time had called money saving efforts.

Prior to the shared service agreement with West New York, Bayonne had had entered into a shared services agreement with another town.

In March 2020, the council authorized a shared services agreement for a health officer with Weehawken. The agreement also renamed retired Bayonne Health Officer Vincent Rivelli to his former position.

Under Gov. Phil Murphy’s executive order at the beginning of COVID, retired government officials were allowed to return to work to fight the pandemic without pension complications. In April, the council approved a resolution to officially rehire Rivelli to serve as a part-time health officer until a full time officer could be hired.

Out of retirement

Before coming to an agreement with Weehawken, Bayonne had been without a health officer since 2018. That year, Rivelli retired which meant Bayonne, Union City, Weehawken, and Harrison were without health officers.

Bayonne was under a shared services agreement with those municipalities at the time and did not find a full time replacement between Rivelli’s retirement and when COVID hit.

Having the same health officer for multiple cities is not unique. North Bergen Health Officer Tina Mereos currently serves Union City, Secaucus, Weehawken, Guttenberg, and Harrison.

According to Bayonne Public Information Officer Joe Ryan, this is standard practice around the state.

“Every municipality has to have a health officer, and there aren’t as many health officers as there are municipalities, so municipalities often share,” Ryan said. “There are certain types of violations that can’t be issued unless there is a health officer in place.”

Limited talent pool

A number of rigorous qualifications must be met to become a health officer, Ryan said, including passing a competitive examination, five years of experience working in health departments, and a master’s degree. This results in a limited talent pool.

“There’s a whole set of hoops they have to jump through so you can’t just hire someone and make him or her a health officer,” Ryan said. “It’s the same with a number of other positions where you have to have certain requirements or else you’re not in.”

O’Reilly, who was already working for the city’s health department, was designated as health officer, according to Ryan. She had been working for the department as a Registered Environmental Health Specialist. After meeting certain requirements, she qualified as a health officer by the state.

O’Reilly officially took over in April of 2021, according to Ryan. However, it appears she has been working in an acting capacity since before then, being credited with leading the department through the pandemic and giving the occasional COVID-19 video update as health officer.

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