Delaware County is expected to get its own health department “very soon,” county leaders said Tuesday, after decades without one, years of planning, and a global pandemic in which the Chester County Health Department had to fill the role.

Delaware County leaders on Tuesday unveiled their most specific plans yet for how the department’s board will operate and laid out its priorities, including its COVID-19 response.

“If we have learned anything over the past two years, it’s that there is nothing more important than our health,” Monica Taylor, vice chair of the county council, said at a news conference at the Delaware County Government Services Center in Media.

Home to more than half a million people, Delaware County is the most populous county in Pennsylvania without a health department. The other local counties — Philadelphia, Bucks, Chester, and Montgomery Counties — already have their own, as do Allegheny and Erie. The 60 other counties do not, though the cities of Allentown, Bethlehem, Wilkes-Barre, and York have municipal health departments.

The Pennsylvania Department of Health and the Delaware County team said they are in regular communication “to ensure all necessary criteria are met” for the county health department, said Pennsylvania Department of Health spokesperson Mark O’Neill.

“We anticipate a final decision in the near future,” said Mark O’Neill. Approval is “coming very soon, hopefully,” said Melissa Lyon, soon-to-be director of the Delaware County Health Department. They didn’t provide a more specific timeline.

The impending decision comes months after Chester and Delaware Counties ended the temporary pandemic partnership that county leaders called “lifesaving.” The termination happened in July, before the delta and omicron waves, the latter of which hit Delaware County hospitals particularly hard.

Lyon said pandemic response would remain paramount.

The No. 1 issue is “still COVID, as much as no one wants to hear that now,” said Lyon, former public health director and most recently COVID-19 response incident commander for the Erie County Health Department. “Realistically, it is the thing that is still impacting morbidity and mortality in our community.”

Throughout the pandemic, “not having a public health department here in Delaware County definitely made it difficult to have access to the data that was really happening locally,” she added. “One of the values of having the health department is we’ll have access to this data.”

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Like other county health departments, the Delaware County Health Department will do work in a wide variety of areas, including infectious disease control and investigation, maternal health, childhood immunizations, and public health education. It will also take over some responsibilities, such as food and sanitation inspections, from municipalities that are currently tasked with those checks in lieu of a county health department.

“We do all this work in the background that actually protects people,” Lyon said. “Delaware County can only benefit from a robust, strong public health department.”

For decades, Delaware County has mulled forming a county health department. In 1968, county leaders authorized an economic study on how to do so, but voters rejected the idea. Similar studies were done in the years that followed, county leaders have said.

In 2019, Democrats Monica Taylor, Elaine Schaefer, and Christine Reuther won seats on county council, giving the party control of the board for the first time since at least the Civil War, and vowed to make good on the campaign promise of finally forming a health department.

» READ MORE: What can we learn from omicron? Here are 7 steps public health leaders say we should take before the next surge.

But just four months later, the pandemic struck.

The Chester County Health Department began providing services temporarily for neighboring Delaware County. That meant Delaware County didn’t have to rely on the overwhelmed state Health Department for help increasing testing capacity, contact tracing, and relaying information to residents.

By spring 2020, the county created a timeline for forming its own health department. County council members estimated the process would take two years. It included health and economic studies, listening sessions with community members, and the appointment of a Board of Health and director.

County council also turned a former supermarket in Yeadon into the Delaware County Wellness Center, which for the past year has served as a coronavirus vaccine clinic but is eventually intended to be the Health Department’s permanent home.

Much of the state has neither a county nor municipal health department, which means public health response is led entirely by the Pennsylvania Department of Health. New Jersey, meanwhile, relies on 94 local health departments, which operate in every county.