Lancaster County is getting “a lot of things right” and will be preparing an after-action review of its community response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Commissioner Josh Parsons said Wednesday, blaming most of the county’s limitations on action -- and inaction -- by Gov. Tom Wolf and his administration.
Parsons reaffirmed that the county would need to be guided by proof -- metrics and analysis -- that the county would benefit from a health department, while criticizing a poll conducted by Franklin & Marshall College Center for Opinion Research on behalf of United Way Lancaster that found “overwhelming support” for such an agency.
Parsons sat for an hourlong, live-streamed interview with several LNP|LancasterOnline reporters to discuss the county’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccinations, Parsons’ criticism of LNP|LancasterOnline’s coverage of that response and the viability of calls for a department to handle future health emergencies.
Here are four takeaways from the conversation:
Parsons questions whether a county health department is necessary
As part of an after-action review of pandemic response, Parsons said, the county will again discuss creating a public health department.
But he’s far from sold on whether this would have given the county a leg-up in responding to the pandemic.
Ed Hurston, the county’s first health and medical coordinator and who left his position earlier this month, was the main point of contact for the county during the pandemic. He led much of the collaboration between health systems and response team projects in individual nursing homes, Parsons said, largely behind the scenes. This will be continued as a permanent role in the county by Hurston’s replacement, Violet De Stefano.
Parsons said he doubted that the county should need to create a new agency, because the state already has a taxpayer-funded public health agency: the state Department of Health.
“I approach this as a conservative who is somewhat skeptical of growing government, especially when there’s a state department that’s supposed to be doing this,” Parsons said. “It doesn’t mean I can’t be convinced. Maybe the facts lead us to we do. … It’s going to be really going through that data and determining whether it was geography or other impacts that made those differences [in health outcomes] or was it what the health department did?”
He noted that Chester County -- one of the state’s six counties with health departments -- was held up as a model by the LNP|LancasterOnline Editorial Board and others early in the pandemic. But Parsons noted that Chester also purchased $13 million worth of antibody testing from a politically connected biotech company that did not work.
“Some people say a health department is the answer to everything,” Parsons said. “I’m not saying we did better than those counties, but we didn’t spend $13 million on tests that didn’t work.”
Lancaster County has had more COVID-19 deaths than any county with a health department except for Philadelphia, but had a lower rate of hospitalizations.
Parsons blasts F&M survey as a ‘push poll’ that’s ‘designed to get an answer.’
Parsons pushed back on the Franklin & Marshall College poll and LNP | LancasterOnline’s coverage of it, charging it as a “push poll” meant to elicit an emotional response from its respondents. Push polls are typically used as a tactic by political candidates -- not college pollsters -- to disseminate misinformation and get a negative response.
“It’s designed to get an answer,” Parsons said. “That’s OK, I guess, for United Way if they want to become an advocacy organization instead of an organization that helps poor people, then they can do that. And I guess F&M can do that, but what you can’t do is hold that out the community as an objective poll.”
In a call following the live-stream meeting with Parsons, the Center for Public Opinion and Franklin & Marshall Berwood Yost said this poll was a “contingent valuation study” using a standard public opinion research approach. It was prepared by a panel of public health professors and health economists who were tasked with creating the poll to study how the county is faring during the COVID-19 pandemic. United Way paid for the poll but did not have a say in it, Yost added.
Lancaster County stands apart as a model for the state, Parsons says.
The county’s inclusive approach of using private-public partnerships helped the county stand out in the state as it prepared its mass vaccination site, a $42 million economic recovery plan and more, Parsons said.
The county’s mass vaccination site was a big risk, since the county did not have any commitment from the state that it would provide its supplies, he added.
Acting Secretary of Health Allison Beam called the county’s mass vaccination site “a model” in the state last week.
“It does seem now that [the Wolf administration has] changed their tune to some extent,” Parsons said. “They’re recognizing that our model is working and it does seem they’re more willing to supply us with vaccines.”
The county was able to achieve these successes, he said, in spite of the Wolf administration. He reiterated his frequent criticism that Wolf should have included counties and the Legislature in early pandemic discussions around closing sectors of the economy, and said he supports the constitutional amendment to limit Wolf’s emergency powers that will appear on the May primary ballot.
The state should roll back voting expansions, Parsons says.
The pandemic only emphasized issues Parsons had with the state’s voting changes under Act 77 of 2019.
These changes create three different elections that are challenging for counties to run safely and securely: one in-person on Election Day, an election by mail and another election by those who vote early in-person at the board of elections office, Parsons said.
“It’s harder to run logistically; it’s far less secure,” he said.
There is no evidence that mail-in voting increases electoral fraud or is less secure.
He said he believes the state should return to an in-person election, and roll back its voting expansions in Act 77 of 2019 that created no-excuse mail voting.
Most national voting rights groups believe states should make it easier -- not harder -- to vote, using expanded mail-in voting options and other voting options.