After nearly a year of dealing with the effects of COVID-19 with the assistance of neighboring Chester County, Delaware County has taken a series of concrete steps toward forming a health department of its own. And county officials say the department should be up and running by January 2022.
County Council this month hired a firm to study the financial implications of the move. Members of the county’s Public Health Steering Committee have begun holding listening sessions with clergy and other community members about what they want to see from a department. And the county plans to break ground Jan. 25 on a wellness center in Yeadon that will double as a site for coronavirus vaccines and eventually become the health department’s permanent home.
County Council President Brian Zidek said he and his colleagues are grateful for the assistance the Chester County Health Department has provided during the pandemic and said he “shudders to think” what would have happened without those shared resources. Chester County’s department helped with contact tracing, tracking positive cases, and communicating with the public, something Delaware County otherwise would have had to rely on the state to do, likely at a slower pace.
But public health, Zidek said, goes beyond responding to the virus, and forming the department is an important goal.
“We don’t think the existence of a health department means the life expectancy of our citizens is going to jump by two years,” said Zidek, who with his colleagues on the all-Democrat council has long pushed to establish a department of Delaware County’s own. It was a main component of the platform the three council members ran on in the 2019 election, and one of the first priorities they mentioned after being sworn in.
And then COVID swept through the region.
“Having our own health department was clearly a best practice,” said Zidek. “And I wish we haven’t been proven so right, but the events of last year certainly ended that debate.”
The coronavirus has highlighted the gaps in how Delaware County responds to large-scale public health issues. But it’s also highlighted less obvious shortcomings, Zidek said.
Because there is no countywide health department, municipalities are left to inspect restaurants for health code violations, for example. And when the state ordered restaurants to shut down dining, that, too, was handled locally. Some, county officials said, were judicious in cracking down on scofflaws. Others seemed to not enforce the ban at all, officials said.
Rosemarie Halt, a pharmacist and public health expert, has served as the liaison between Delaware and Chester Counties during the pandemic, and has come to understand these needs firsthand.
“Because we’ve underfunded public health, we’ve been at great risk,” she said. “And our inability to curb this epidemic at the very beginning, and the fact that it’s so widespread right now, is really partly due to public health infrastructure.”
Halt, who has worked in health care in Delaware County for decades, said the history of its struggle with public health stretches back to another pervasive disease: polio.
In 1968, the County Council commissioned an economic study to determine how to properly form a health department, she said. It failed to get traction, as did a series of similar studies in the years that followed, including one as recent as 2006.
“At the end of the day, it was money” that felled those plans, she said, a decision she called shortsighted. “The failure to invest in public health infrastructure leads to great public cost, from a lack of care.”
For example, asthma has been a widespread issue among the county’s children, Halt said. Teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases are also at above-average rates. All of these conditions, and others, can be studied by a county health department, which also has the ability to call in larger state or federal authorities for in-depth investigations.
“Because of COVID, people are getting a much better understanding of the importance of data, how we analyze it and our response,” Halt said. “I think this is going to change how public health shares data, because this process showed it was relevant to the appetite the public has for this information.”
Grace Gorenflo, a public health consultant tapped by Delaware County to help create the health department, said starting from scratch has its advantages.
“I think because public health is always looking to update, there are health departments across the country that are restructuring, realigning themselves with the modern model, so this is a great point in time for a county to come in fresh and say ‘What is our job?’ ” Gorenflo said. “Unlike older health departments that have run under existing models for years, they’re not looking to shed facilities or cut into staffing to meet current demands.”