METHUEN — Additional help is on the way to assist the city’s Public Health Department in navigating the COVID-19 pandemic after the City Council unanimously approved a two-year, $624,000 grant to fund contact tracing efforts.

Inspectional Services Director Felix Zemel said the Department of Economic and Community Development applied for and received the grant through the state Department of Public Health in anticipation of the end of the state’s contact tracing collaborative program on Oct. 31. As of Nov. 1, Zemel said, all municipalities will be responsible for conducting their own contact tracing.

Typically, cities must go in with two other municipalities in order to apply for the grant, but given how hard-hit Methuen was by the pandemic, the city was able to apply on its own, Zemel said. The grant Methuen received will be paid out in two, $312,000 annual installments.

The money will cover the cost of hiring one full-time epidemiologist and two community health workers, along with associated technology costs for the new staff. In addition, $103,000 has been set aside for what Zemel calls “surge staffing” during a 17-week period, presumably when COVID-19 peaks during the holiday season. That “extra cushion” allows for the hiring of 7 additional, full-time community health workers.

“When COVID-19 incidence levels are stable — or low — the grant staff will be assigned additional community health responsibilities and will work with the community to build a relationship between the health division and all Methuen residents,” Zemel said.

The new city employees will be assigned duties elsewhere within the health division as their schedule dictates, though contact tracing will remain the priority. According to Zemel, there will also be opportunities for career advancement.

While Councilor At-large Jessica Finocchiaro recognized the many residents who contacted her opposed to spending the money in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic, she said the allocation is a necessary measure in order to keep the city healthy. After all, Finocchiaro reasoned, the state contact tracing program will cease, so Methuen must continue the tracing one way or another after Oct. 31.

“If we don’t accept this money, we’ll have to use taxpayer dollars to do the same thing,” she said. “This is something we’re being required to do, so I think it makes sense for us to accept these funds so we can do it and do it right with the state’s money instead of ours.”

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