Lancaster County Commissioner Ray D’Agostino wants to create a voluntary, ongoing health advisory council that — failing renewal — would expire in two years.
The Republican lawmaker’s proposal came Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021, during a county work session, citing the success of a COVID-19 advisory group that was disbanded earlier this year. The plan is expected to be put to a vote at the commissioners’ meeting Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021, and could be implemented by January.
The advisory council would be composed of nine to 13 volunteer members appointed by commissioners to provide data analysis and recommendations on the “detection, prevention and response” to illnesses that pose a public health threat to Lancaster County residents.
The proposal stops short of what county leaders, organizations and health officials have for decades called for: the creation of a local health department.
“So, let me be clear, this is not a health department, nor a substitute for one, and under the current law, given my research and outreach, I will not vote to study, much less establish a county health department in Lancaster County,” D’Agostino said, reading from prepared comments.
Commissioner Craig Lehman countered with an amendment that would request approval from the Pennsylvania Department of Health to consider establishing a local health department. The request — Lancaster’s only Democratic commissioner said — would not compel the county to create or pay for a local health department.
“The advisory council really doubles down on the county being under the state regulatory control,” Lehman said.
A 1951 state law permits counties like Lancaster to create a local health department, but it also has a laundry list of services that must be provided by a department.
Lehman added, “If you want local control, whether you like the 1951 law or not, you need a local health department to do that.”
His amendment is also expected to be put up for a vote Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021.
‘The right approach’
Among Pennsylvania’s 67 counties, the seven most populous have a local health department, except Lancaster and Delaware, which is in the process of launching one.
D’Agostino said he had spent the past 18 months working on the concept of a health advisory council. He also is the one who proposed hiring an adviser to assist the county in navigating the COVID-19 pandemic.
The commissioners hired Edwin A. Hurston, of Martic Township, on a contractual basis as their public health emergency adviser in April 2020. He was paid $1,800 weekly. He retired in March.
A new position, "health and medical coordinator," was created in December as part of the county's emergency management department. Violet De Stefano, 23, a graduate of Winona State University in Minnesota with a bachelor’s of science in public health, was hired for the position at a yearly salary of $48,500 and began Feb. 16.
County lawmakers from various townships in attendance Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021, praised the proposal as a Lancaster County solution during public comments
“We now have channels of communication that never existed before,” East Hempfield Township Supervisor H. Scott Russell said of the public-private coalition that formed in the wake of the pandemic.
Russell, who also is the president of the Lancaster County Association of Township Supervisors, said there was no support among its members in April to create a county health department.
Russell called the proposal “the right approach.”
Denver Borough Mayor Rodney Redcay agreed.
“I’ve never experienced anything that has taxed us and divided us like this pandemic,” Redcay said, adding he thought the advisory council was the correct approach.
Redcay added, “One thing I know, we needed to coordinate all of our health systems in Lancaster County to work together to help us through this difficult time.”
The proposal comes as state and federal health officials have struggled — in an era of politicizing public health — to effectively respond to COVID-19, which has now killed more Americans than the 1918 Spanish flu, the deadliest pandemic in U.S. history.
The Spanish flu killed about 675,000 Americans, when the U.S. population was about roughly a third of the size it is today, while the novel coronavirus this week surpassed 700,000 fatalities, according to the Associated Press.
‘Caught off guard’
The COVID-19 pandemic managed to revitalize the ongoing debate over creating a health department in Lancaster County.
Manheim Township and Lancaster City Council approved resolutions earlier this year supporting a health department and called on Lancaster County commissioners to create one.
Earlier this year, a Franklin & Marshall College survey found 90% of Lancaster County adults in every group polled — regardless of political affiliation, racial or income attainment — support forming a local health department.
The researchers also noted the county lacks real-time data to respond to pressing health issues such as childhood lead poisoning, believed to have been exacerbated in the pandemic and now considered a public health crisis. The most recent state data for annual lead surveillance, for example, is for 2019.
Opposition to forming a health department revolves chiefly around bureaucracy and costs.
“Virtually every county in the United States, including Lancaster County, was caught off guard by the coronavirus pandemic,” said Ernest J. Schreiber, retired executive editor of the Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era/Sunday News, predecessor of LNP | LancasterOnline, in a prepared statement during public comments.
Schreiber added, “This proposal takes the best of what health department advocates want and avoids the excesses that critics dislike.”
Commissioners took no action Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021.