VIA: The Delaware County Times
The Democratic-controlled Delaware County Council delivered its first State of the County address Friday, looking at the past year consumed by the deadly pandemic to priorities for the upcoming year from setting up the county health department to deprivatizating the county prison.
“2020 and 2021 have been full of challenges we could have never expected,” Delaware County Council Chairman Brian Zidek said. “It has also shown how strong and resilient our community is and it has provided us a clearer vision of what we need to do to make Delaware County a fairer, equitable and inclusive community for all.”
In a time besieged by COVID-19, the county struggled with those who contracted the virus, those who died from it, the loss of jobs and businesses and issues of food and housing security. As of Friday, the Chester County Health Department was reporting that 45,942 county residents had tested positive for coronavirus and 1,371 had died because of it since the pandemic first appeared here in Delaware County and in the state on March 6, 2020.
A year later, the pandemic remained a top priority for the county with more than 40 COVID testing sites and six permanent vaccine sites, plus other large-scale vaccination events operating throughout the county.
“To date, over 216,000 adults in the county have received at least one dose of the vaccine, which is about 50 percent of our adult population,” Councilwoman Elaine Paul Schaefer said. “We need to reach at least 75 percent to reach herd immunity and we are almost there.”
She added that education and outreach has launched to address vaccine hesitancy.
“Every person who gets protection from the virus by getting a vaccination helps us to move closer to normal life,” Schaefer said. “The vaccine not only protects us personally, it protects those we love and our community. Vaccines are safe and effective and they are our best defense against the virus.”
Small businesses also were greatly impacted by the mitigation measures put in place and the county responded with four rounds of the Delco Strong program, distributing over $19 million to more than 1,600 businesses and non-profit organizations. Schaefer added that Delaware County was recognized by Gov. Tom Wolf for this program, which helped to maintain more than 5,600 jobs.
Part of the money to fund Delco Strong came from the $98 million allocation the county received through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act last year. When the American Rescue Plan Act passed, it included $109 million for Delaware County, $55 million of which is anticipated to be received in the next month.
“As was our plan with the CARES money that we got, it is our priority to make sure that we use this money in the most efficacious way to advance the health and economic interest of our county in whatever way that might be,” Zidek said, providing the example of the county’s use of CARES funds to give $20 million to schools to help them with getting PPE or needed supplies for in-person learning or providing notebooks or tablets or broadband capabilities, as well as the $19 million for businesses through Delco Strong.
He added that the money was, and continues, to be used for public health initiatives such as purchasing PPE in the early days of the virus to making sure testing is running up to more recently, supplying the vaccination effort.
Zidek added he expects that another public hearing will be held on the spending of the American Rescue Plan money, as was held with the CARES Act money last year. He added that each dollar will be spent with the long-term benefit of the residents in mind and welcomed recommendations from the public on how to spend it.
County council also spoke to its efforts to create a county health department as Delaware County is the largest county in Pennsylvania without one.
“We know that the only way to improve equity, inclusion and opportunity is to change government’s priorities,” Zidek said, noting that the health department as a tool in that regard. “Having a county health department will allow us to collect data needed to make better decisions about where resources should be deployed to address every community’s needs and will allow us to better understand the public health needs of our residents and the opportunity to meet those needs.”
Delaware County Vice Chairman Dr. Monica Taylor said the importance of the need for the county health department was evident before the COVID pandemic.
“Responding to COVID-19 provided valuable information about the public health needs of our residents,” she said, adding, “We have significant health disparities in our county and we know that every resident deserves the opportunity to lead a safe and healthy life.”
Regarding the progression of the county health department, officials expect to hire a Health Department Director in the summer, more personnel for the department in the summer and fall with opening of the department slated for January 2022.
Taylor explained that the initial programs offered will be those required by state Act 315, such as communicable disease surveillance and control, maternal and child health and inspections. Simultaneously, she said the department will be gathering data to understand the health needs throughout the county.
“We also know that if we look at mortality rates based on race, the number four cause of death for the Black population is assault and for white population, it ranks 20th,” Taylor said. “This is an example of where we will need additional data and we will research where the assaults occur, where the victims live, then we will work with the community to … address this issue.”
Another inequity she identified is birth outcomes with an infant mortality rate of 3.5 times higher for babies born to Black mothers than those born to white mothers.
Taylor said the department also expects to learn more about environmental pollutants and the health of residents who have the greatest exposure to them, as well as to collect data on food and housing security and lead poisoning.
Tangentially, county Councilwoman Christine Reuther addressed the Delaware County Solid Waste Authority, which is holding a live-stream meeting 3 p.m. May 5 regarding renewing its contract with the Covanta trash-to-steam plant in Chester. A link will be available on the county website at delcopa.gov.
She said Covanta is regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Environmental Protection and must meet their standards to operate. She added that the company is planning to stream live on their website all of the data, including stack emissions, that is streamed to their regulators.
In addition, she said the county health department would have the authority to look at air quality and its impact on the health of residents exposed to it.
Zidek offered his perspective, adding that it’s not a county council call but one for the solid waste authority.
“My position is I don’t want Delaware County’s waste incinerated at the Covanta facility,” he said. “Thirty one percent of the waste that is incinerated at Covanta comes from Delaware County.”
He said his understanding was the contract between Covanta and the county necessitates that Delco provide 330,000 tons of waste a year to Covanta.
“A lot of the contracts that I’ve seen around the county make no sense,” Zidek said. “Why would we have a contract that necessitates that we provide 330,000 tons of trash, if that is in fact the case … that gives us no incentive at all to reduce waste.”
He said he hopes the authority develops program to help the county reduce the amount of waste it produces.
“Dr. Taylor talked about health equity and we talked about disparate health outcomes in the county,” Zidek said. “When the entire county sends all of its trash to be burned in Chester and we see worse air condition in Chester, we shouldn’t be terribly surprised by that and that just seems fundamentally unfair to me.”
In addition, last June, following the murder of George Floyd and the civil unrest that followed, Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer announced the creation of a Countywide Task Force on Criminal Justice Reform to address issues in the Criminal Justice System and in the community, as well as to look at the county’s role in fostering equality and justice outside the scope of law enforcement, such as in education, public health and substance abuse.
“Diversity, inclusiveness and opportunity make Delaware County better at every level and for everyone but they do not happen by themselves,” Taylor said, adding the county has an ability to expand opportunity for every resident, every work and every small- and medium-minority owned and operated business. “They take commitment, planning, effort and accountability … We must lead by example and make meaningful and long-lasting change.”
Another issue highlighted in the address was the deprivatization of the prison.
“Rather than helping people who’ve been either charged or convicted of a minor crime to get their feet back under them so they can be productive and accountable members of our community, too often, our system simply warehouses them until their sentences are complete, returning them to their communities no better off than when they went it,” Madden said. “Then, the cycle repeats.”
Citing the county’s obligation to have people return to their communities stronger and healthier, Madden said the county’s motivation to deprivatize the 1,883-inmate George W. Hill Correctional Facility is about a balance of rehabilitation and punishment.
“The county has a tremendous interest in helping them use their time in incarceration to reset their lives and emerge in a better position to become productive, law-abiding neighbors,” Madden said.
Regarding the court-ordered closing of the Lima juvenile detention center and the ongoing Attorney General investigation, Madden added county council shares the public concern about the allegations and is aware that Delaware County is an anomaly with juvenile detention being overseen by the courts.
Reuther spoke to last year’s election, which saw no-excuse mail-in voting and the implementation of new paper-backed voting machines.
“Delaware County had over 330,000 residents vote in last fall’s general election,” she said. “That’s an enormous turnout and almost 130,000 of those voters cast their votes by mail … This is a testament to the election workers and county employees who stepped up to assist with this election. It was really an enormous team effort.”
Among the infrastructure needed to support that effort was the 41 drop boxes that the county installed to receive the ballot throughout the county. As the county faced at least 10 lawsuits, none of which found significant problems, the election was certified on Nov. 25.
Madden also noted the multiple ethics reforms that county officials have passed since January 2020 to ensure that every resident is being properly served.
Part of that has been an emphasis on transparency from a redesigned website with more information available online, such as the county council agenda and addendums, council minutes, a broadened, detailed county budget and various live-streamed meetings from council to the Job Oversight Board to the Elections Board.
“We hope that our commitment, reform and accountability will help to restore some degree of confidence between the residents, business owners and workers of Delaware County and the government elected to serve them,” Madden said.
In the past year, he added council has hired the following senior leaders: Executive Director, Chief Financial Officer, Chief Personnel Officer, Chief Information Officer, Director of Elections, Chief Sustainability Officer (a new position), Workforce Development Director, Assistant Director of Human Resources, Director of County Office of Services to the Aging, Medical Advisor, COVID Vaccine Task Force Director, CYS Manager, Telecommunications Manager, Interim Warden, Interim Commerce Center Director, Interim Treasurer, Interim Facilities Director and Grants Administrator.
They are still looking to hire a Deputy County Executive Director, Prison Warden, Health Department Director, the county’s first Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer, Budget Management Director, Director of Central Purchasing and Medical Examiner.
Council also paused when considering where Delaware County would be a year from now, some offering reserved comments, others more optimistic but one thing was shared – Delaware County’s ability to move from the virus depends on the community’s immunity.
“A year from now, I see us in a really great place,” Schaefer said. “On the health front, I think we’re through this virus but I think we have lasting effects in terms of our behavior and public health. I think we are all going to continue washing our hands forever and ever.”
She added that she thought staying home from work will be part of the new reality, as will getting flu shots or boosters every year.
Schaefer shared that many learned the value of the outdoors, with some of the county trails experiencing 200 percent increases. “And I think that’s going to stick,” she said. “I think people have learned how good that makes them feel.”
She said people have reconnected with family and friends and that will remain.
Looking at the economy, Schaefer said small businesses that survived have continued to struggle but hopes that there will be a heightened focus on supporting them. She asked for anyone that has an idea or a study that is making a big difference in a program to bring it to council.
Madden, Reuther and Taylor were more reserved in their views, adding that the county is not out of the woods yet.
“I am very, very concerned, I really am,” Madden said. “Mountains were moved to develop a vaccine in a time frame that this world has never seen before and we haven’t defeated this virus yet … I’m really concerned that we are looking too much towards a future that is post-COVID-19 when we are not yet out of it … The only thing we can really do to end this horrible experience that we’ve all been going through the past year is to defeat it through immunity.”
“At the end of the day, our ability to get back to something that is normal … is to get as many people vaccinated as possible,” Reuther said, adding that masks may still be in vogue, particularly at the grocery store or in large venues. “We now have got vaccine and appointments that outstrip the demand for vaccination, even though we are at about 50 percent or somewhat less … One of the things we need to do is both get those people who want to be vaccinated and don’t know that there are appointments or ways for them to be vaccinated vaccinated. The other thing we need to do is we need to convince people that this is real and this is serious and that reducing risk means getting a shot.
“I think where we are in a year depends on our success in overcoming vaccine hesitancy,” she said.
Taylor said it’s difficult to imagine a year from now in a world that has been changing so quickly because of the pandemic.
“It’s going to take us a while as a community, as a country to get out of where we are right now,” Taylor said, adding that having a health department will help and that work life may be a hybrid or virtual method.
Zidek said he’s hopeful that some life lessons will continue that have been learned through this experience to keep our communities safe.
“One of them is that we need a lot more we than me in the way that we collectively lead our lives, that we are all so interconnected,” he said. “If we act in a selfish way and we don’t wear masks, for instance, we refuse to get vaccinated and we think somehow that this asking people to think about others is an infringement upon one’s freedom and that you’re more patriotic because you refuse to do so, that we put to rest that myth, that we realize that we are interconnected.”