Organizing dozens of meetings, talking daily with state health officials, answering phones ringing nonstop. Creating web pages, training first responders. Devising contingency plans for nursing homes, the homeless, and Meals on Wheels: All part of how county health departments across the Philadelphia and South Jersey region have been preparing for coronavirus.
Then came the news Friday: Two Pennsylvanians — one each in Delaware and Wayne Counties — were quarantined after testing positive for coronavirus, and Camden County added another person to New Jersey’s tally. And five Bucks County schools closed over concerns that students or staff may have been exposed to an out-of-state visitor who has since contracted the illness.
For Camden and Delaware Counties, it was a test of the preparations officials around the region had been making for weeks. And for other counties, which for years have prepared how to respond to infectious diseases like measles or whooping cough, it was a reminder that a much bigger challenge could be headed their way.
“What we’re doing now,” Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoosh said Wednesday, “is ramping up and preparing for what possibly could be a much larger volume of that type of work.”
Bucks County Health Department Director David Damsker said the goal was to get out the message while also making practical decisions. “We want to take it real seriously, but we also don’t want to incite panic,” he said.
Managing a flood of information
From tool kits to information hubs, every county and the state is posting frequently updated information online and on social media. Local officials say they are coordinating constantly with the state and other agencies.
“There’s so much guidance” from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Jessica Caum, manager of the Philadelphia Public Health Department’s public health preparedness program. “We’re doing our best to consolidate the information we have. The more we can make that accessible on a local level, the better.”
Even though Delaware County has no health department, the county has long-established protocols to deal with something like coronavirus.
“The goal for government,” County Council Vice Chair Monica Taylor said Wednesday, “is to plan and make sure we have everything in place in case something does get bad. But we’re hoping that it doesn’t get as bad as people are fearing.”
In other counties, health department officials said they have been fielding an unusually high volume of calls from residents. Some officials urged folks to check the county or CDC website first for basic information about coronavirus, but they said they’re trying to answer as many questions as possible in hopes of spreading factual information throughout the community.
“If they call here and we can answer a question, that can be a measure of comfort to some people, and that’s worthwhile,” said Anne Walters, director of the Camden County Health Department.
As county health officials follow CDC direction and follow rigorous protocols, responding to the potential crisis also requires tailoring responses.
Multiple counties said they were preparing human services professionals to aid people with housing, mental health, food delivery, or other needs during an outbreak. Camden County officials said that if there’s a large-scale outbreak, neighboring counties may consider sharing services, such as consolidating emergency dispatchers at a central facility.
Officials in some counties said experience with past disease outbreaks such as Ebola helped fine-tune preparedness plans. “You put it into action now and you tweak based on the disease of the day,” said Jeanne Casner, Chester County health director.
Montgomery County’s Office of Public Health has increased regular and weekend staffing and is training people to be coronavirus educators in response to information requests piling up from community members. The county’s census group has been designated to reach out to residents who don’t speak English and distribute information, Arkoosh said.
As of Friday night, Philadelphia had not yet logged a confirmed case of the virus. Still, City Council plans hearings on the administration’s preparedness.
“The city must be ready to handle an influx of testing demands, treatment needs and capacity issues, [and] emergency service preparations," said the resolution from Councilmember Allan Domb.
Staff writer Laura McCrystal contributed to this article.