Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

A ‘lifesaving’ health partnership in the Philly suburbs can end as the pandemic wanes

Officials in Philadelphia, its suburbs and in New Jersey said it was too soon to reevaluate mask guidance because of the delta variant, reiterating that fully vaccinated people are well protected.

Nurse Hyun Lee administers a COVID-19 vaccine to Stephen Zeng, 15, of Northeast Philadelphia during a pop-up vaccination clinic at the H Mart shopping plaza in Philadelphia's Olney section last month.
Nurse Hyun Lee administers a COVID-19 vaccine to Stephen Zeng, 15, of Northeast Philadelphia during a pop-up vaccination clinic at the H Mart shopping plaza in Philadelphia's Olney section last month.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

The coronavirus has abated enough for officials to end the arrangement that had Chester County running Delaware County’s pandemic response — and now Delaware County is on track to open its own health department in January.

“We have made enormous progress,” Delaware County Council Vice Chair Monica Taylor said Friday, “and that is a testament to the hard work of those inside and outside of government who have assisted us.”

The county’s newly established Board of Health held its first meeting last month, and hiring for the health department will begin in the fall, a county spokesperson said.

Because Delaware County didn’t have a health department, Chester County’s ran the pandemic response for both starting in March 2020, providing better capacity for disseminating information, investigating cases, and testing for COVID-19.

The counties had just two dozen confirmed cases of the coronavirus between them when the partnership was announced two hectic weeks into the state’s pandemic response.

Sixteen months later, county leaders say their partnership was “lifesaving.” And, like many other aspects of the pandemic that experts have said underscored the importance of investing in public health, officials say it served as a reminder of how critical local infrastructure can be.

» READ MORE: CDC recommends that schools fully reopen this fall

The public health presence in Chester County, which included preparation with hospitals, nursing homes, businesses, and school districts, along with online resources, “helped us tremendously,” said Chester County Commissioners’ Chair Marian Moskowitz, adding that Delaware County needed the same “dedicated, local service.”

“As we reflect on the outcomes from the pandemic, the importance of having our own health department, with staff that works day in and day out with our emergency services people, our human services staff, and our other community partners, certainly tops the list,” Moskowitz said.

Like other moves toward normalcy this week — the CDC on Friday recommended U.S schools fully reopen for in-person learning in the fall — the winding down in the Philadelphia suburbs came even as the delta variant roils other areas of the nation and world, and unvaccinated people continue being hospitalized with the virus.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also said Friday that vaccinated teachers and students don’t need to wear masks, but recommended unvaccinated people wear them indoors.

And officials in the Philadelphia region and New Jersey said this week that it’s too soon to reevaluate mask guidance because of the delta variant — as leaders in Los Angeles and St. Louis have done — though they noted that could change if cases rise significantly.

“The delta variant is a worrisome change in the COVID pandemic and we’re closely watching what’s happening in places where the variant seems to be spreading widely,” Philadelphia Health Department spokesperson Jim Garrow said.

» READ MORE: The delta variant isn’t dominant yet in the Philly region. More vaccinations could keep it that way.

So far, data indicates the variant is less prevalent in this region than other parts of the country. Public health officials across Pennsylvania and New Jersey are trying to get more people vaccinated before the delta variant spreads further.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said there was “no reason” to revisit a mask mandate, saying the state’s case numbers “are in really good shape” and noting that requirements can be changed swiftly if needed.

“At the moment, we’re comfortable with where we are,” he said.

Some suburban officials reiterated that fully vaccinated people should feel safe taking off their masks indoors given the low case counts and high vaccination rates there.

“Highly vaccinated communities with low infection rates pose a minuscule risk of infection to fully immunized individuals,” said Lisa O’Mahony, medical adviser for Delaware County. “In this setting, it is probably safe to go without a mask, even indoors.”

» READ MORE: 1 million Pennsylvanians have missed their second shot. They’ll need it against the Delta variant.

However, some said, people may want to put them on if they travel to a less-vaccinated area, especially if it has high case counts, or if they have a health condition that might make the vaccine less effective. Garrow, of Philadelphia, noted that wearing a mask in crowded indoor places is “never a bad idea,” but said it would become more important if cases start to rise.

“We always recommend individuals weigh their personal tolerance and if they choose to continue to wear a mask, that is completely acceptable,” said Jeanne Franklin, director of the Chester County Health Department, adding that when traveling outside the region, “it is a good practice to consider wearing a mask.”