Pandemic spotlights Delco’s long-standing health department fight
By Katie Meyer/WHYY
As the COVID-19 pandemic grips southeastern Pennsylvania, Democratic leaders in Delaware County say they hope their struggle to respond to the crisis proves, once and for all, that they need to create their own health department.
Delaware County, which has so far identified 84 positive coronavirus cases, is the biggest county in the state that doesn’t have its own health department. According to county council members, it’s also the biggest in the country.
“I think maybe the previous administrations were worried about the economic impact, although they never did an economic impact study to see what it would look like,” said Monica Taylor, who serves as vice chair of the county council. “There was just not the political will there to push it forward.”
Taylor took office in January, part of a Democratic wave that also elected fellow council members Elaine Paul Schaefer and Christine Reuther. They joined fellow Democrats Kevin Madden and Brian Zidek, who won their seats in 2018, and ended an era of Republican county council dominance that dated back to the Civil War.
One of the newfound majority’s first priorities was to establish a health department.
Taylor said even before coronavirus hit, the wheels were already in motion. The council commissioned several required studies and met with state officials to see what infrastructure they’d have to put in place.
“I always anticipate pushback,” she said. “But I hope that right now [coronavirus] gives us more fire to make our case. I think it gives us more solid information as to why we need a health department, so anybody who does provide pushback, we have information to give them and real statistics on why we need it and what it does for us.”
Counties that don’t have health departments lean on the state to fill needs like communication and coordination among municipalities. Delaware County also has a Department of Intercommunity Health which, while not quite a health department, partners with health care providers and emergency services to address public health issues.
Many Republicans, like county GOP Chair Tom McGarrigle, have long believed that is enough. McGarrigle served in the state Senate before taking over the party organization, and estimates he has been involved in Delaware County government for about two decades.
Coronavirus is a twist he wasn’t quite prepared for.
“Up until this point — and this is something we’ve never seen in anyone’s lifetime — we’ve never had a situation where we fell short on providing health services to individuals in Delaware County,” he said.
He isn’t convinced, however, that when the dust settles and life returns to normal, the additional services Delaware County has been receiving will show a need to create an entire new department.
In the first weeks after coronavirus patients were identified in Delaware and neighboring counties, officials mainly relied on the state to get updated data on new cases and to disseminate information about best practices to municipalities and businesses.
But, Taylor said, there was an important drawback to that arrangement: the state is governed by stricter privacy rules than counties are, and wasn’t permitted to give county officials specific information on the location of new cases — just that they were within county lines.
“It was information I thought we could use,” she said. “I think it’s really important for us to understand if there’s clusters, or if there’s more areas we need to focus more on because there are more cases there.”
As Taylor and the other council members were brainstorming better ways to approach the epidemic, neighboring Chester County called and offered to team up. Chester does have its own health department and Marian Moskowitz, who chairs its board of commissioners, said it had the bandwidth to help Delaware County with on-the-ground operations in ways the state can’t.
“It’s just natural for us to help our neighbors when they need it,” she said. “The state is limited, they’re overwhelmed, and they’re doing such a great job but it is overwhelming.”
On Thursday, Chester County got state approval to extend its services to cover Delaware County. Moskowitz said since then, things have been going smoothly.
Chester County now manages communication with health operators in Delaware County, handles public information, coordinates with nursing homes and hospitals, traces people who have had contact with coronavirus patients, sources testing kits and updates online information.
Moskowitz said by and large, they were able to easily expand their existing infrastructure to cover Delaware County, and pulled from their lists of volunteer and temporary staffers to fill gaps.
Taylor said when the epidemic recedes, however, she doesn’t want to have to rely on a last-minute solution like this again.
If Delaware County had its own health department, she said, “I think it would have been better in overall planning and how we were addressing the situation from the beginning.”
She added that for now though, the partnership with Chester has been a “great fix.”
WHYY is the leading public media station serving the Philadelphia region, including Delaware, South Jersey and Pennsylvania. This story originally appeared on WHYY.org.