More than 100,000 deaths into a pandemic that our president initially downplayed before later using it like brass knuckles to beat on high-casualty blue states like Pennsylvania, I have found an American political hero story.
This extraordinary tale is happening in two neighboring suburban Philadelphia counties with a combined population of about 1.1 million people. The heroes are civil servants, medical experts, and local politicians. They have locked arms to save all their citizens from the scourge.
No squabbling over blame, burden, or boundaries. None of the corrosive crowing we’ve heard from Washington Republicans who’ve obliterated national unity with the godless echo of I’m-protecting-mine, tough-luck-to-you.
Chester County, the most affluent in all of Pennsylvania, has reached across its border into Delaware County, which has one of the region’s highest poverty rates. It is lending its 100-person-strong county Health Department to help pull Delaware County’s half-million residents, and their frozen economy, to safety from the ravages of COVID-19.
Chester County’s higher-minded Republican political predecessors had had enough sense, before being booted last fall, to have supported a health department. Now under Democratic control, that county is extending that resource to another formerly GOP-led county next door. Delco’s Republican predecessors refused to form a health department for its more than half a million residents.
This is America at its best.
“When my team was asked, ‘Can we and should we?’ it was all hands up, saying this is the right thing to do. No borders. We need to do what we can,” Chester County Health Department Director Jeanne Casner told me Thursday in a lengthy interview. "We knew if Delaware County was not supported appropriately, it was going to affect Chester County.
“It’s the right thing to do,” Casner added.
Let that sink in for a minute.
It’s the right thing to do.
One governmental entity needs help. They ask for a hand. They get it from another that has resources to spare.
“Do you guys get any time off?” I asked as Casner and some of her staffers gathered for a photo to go with this column. A program coordinator smiled behind her mask.
“We now get weekends,” Rachael Hernandez said. “Before, we didn’t.”
It’s the right thing to do.
Casner and Hernandez are two of the 15 Health Department-tasked staffers I had the privilege to meet, if only for a few minutes, outside the Chester County Government Services Center. They are a small contingent of the giant team that has worked tirelessly to reduce coronavirus infection and death rates in still-locked-down Chester and Delaware Counties since March and earlier.
Their names make up a most worthy, if incomplete, roll call:
Dr. Renee Cassidy, public health physician; Alexandria Tavoni; communicable disease specialist; Heather DeStefano, on loan from the county Department of Emergency Services; Dave Sekkes, a digital mapping analyst also on loan from DES; Kelly Raum, environmental health specialist; Eric Misthal, public health emergency preparedness planner; Michele Steiner, personal program supervisor; Suzy Curtis, public health emergency preparedness coordinator; Gianna Megaro, disease investigation specialist; Bill Boyer, disease investigation specialist; Mike Baysinger, director of health services; Stephanie Steiner, public health planner; Meghan Smith, health planning and promotion coordinator.
“I have incredible staff," Casner said. "This is what they signed up for. This is exactly why they’re here."
It’s the right thing to do.
Delaware County had no public health agency in place heading into the pandemic. It had only newly hatched plans to get one started in 18 to 24 months. It was the largest county in the state without one.
Of 67 counties in all of Pennsylvania, only six had health departments: Allegheny, Bucks, Chester, Erie, Montgomery, and Philadelphia. All the others dealt with the pandemic with only catch-as-catch-can help from the state Health Department. This left Delaware County leaders largely powerless in the early weeks.
Its County Council asked their peers in Chester County for help. It couldn’t have hurt that both counties only last year flipped from long-standing Republican rule. Imagine bridging the ideological divide in this exhausting era of political acrimony.
A series of letters seeking permission from Harrisburg reveal a get-it-done resolve on all sides. Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s health secretary, Rachel Levine, approved the arrangement on March 17. Chester County took over two days later.
Chester County had mobilized for the coronavirus as far back as Jan. 15, when Casner, responding to a suspected case, activated a Health Operations Center. When they took on Delco two months later, they repeated there what they already had done locally: contacted schools, churches, synagogues, and nonprofits. They assigned a staffer to each Delaware County nursing home. And on and on.
All of this is essential to helping Delco get the OK, hopefully soon, to reopen many of its businesses, which have been closed since March.
Casner has COVID-19 contact tracing and followup investigation staffing in place now for Delaware County. There’s also a funding commitment to support expanding her department by as many as 30 more staffers in the days or weeks ahead if, for instance, infection numbers spike.
“We are prepared to scale as needed,” Casner said.
Who, by the way, is paying for this extraordinary life raft?
Delaware County has promised to cover 30% of Chester County’s costs. The rest is hopefully coming from federal CARES act or FEMA funds. If not, Chester County’s general fund will cover the difference, county spokesperson Becky Brain told me.