Vaccine Clinic

Vishesh Patel draws the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine into a syringe at a pop-up vaccination clinic inside Wyndham Lancaster Resort and Convention Center at 2300 Lincoln Highway East in East Lampeter Township Saturday, March 6, 2021.

Manheim Township leaders are telling the Lancaster County Board of Commissioners that they want a county health department.

In a unanimous, bipartisan resolution passed Monday night, the Manheim Township Board of Commissioners called on the county “to immediately initiate a working group to evaluate and recommend establishing a county health department by the end of 2021, if not before.

“It’s past time for Lancaster County to create a health department. We have seen the difference good, coordinated public health actions can have over this last year,” said Board President Tom O’Brien.

An ongoing issue

Creation of a county health department has been discussed off and on here for years, and the topic has become a focus in the Manheim Township commissioners’ election.

Dr. Michael Loeven and attorney Anthony Marcavage, who are running unendorsed as Republicans, have included the push for a health department as part of their platform, and O’Brien, a Democrat, began using the resolution in email campaigning after it passed.

Reach by phone Tuesday, Manheim Township Democratic Committee District Leader Courtney Morton said creation of a county health department is part of the Democratic ticket’s platform as well.

“It’s what the people want,” she said. O’Brien, along with Stella Sexton, Denyse Kling and Commissioner Carol Gifford, have the Democratic endorsement in the commissioners’ race. Ryan Dodson is also running as a Democrat without the party’s endorsement.

The slate of endorsed Republicans is also on board.

"In our view, establishing a county health department is merely a government modernization effort to provide county officials with another tool that may be helpful in addressing future public health concerns that could possibly be used to minimize personal freedoms," Republican commissioner candidate John Bear said on behalf of himself and fellow candidates DiMeo, Stacey Morgan-Brubaker and Mary Jo Huyard.

"We support the establishment and use of such a tool, so long as safeguards are put in place to ensure that there is no governmental overreach."

County officials

County Commissioner Craig Lehman, a Democrat, on Tuesday reiterated his previous support for a county health department.

Republican County Commissioner Josh Parsons said he had not seen the resolution.

In an interview last week regarding use of the county’s CARES funds, LNP |LancasterOnline asked Parsons and Commissioner Ray D’Agostino, the three-member board’s second Republican, if they believe federal CARES money for coronavirus relief should have been used to create a health department.

D’Agostino said the law establishing health departments is “antiquated.”

“What in the world has stayed the same since the 1950s?” he asked. He said that it is clear there is a need for “some kind of public health/medical preparedness capacity” at the county level but that the disagreement is on “the level of bureaucracy.”

“The way the state has it set up is it is an unelected and unaccountable bureaucracy and one that could be duplicative,” D’Agostino said. He mentioned a new health position created in the Lancaster County Emergency Management Agency and argued that the law needs to be amended to allow the person in that position access to state data, which was at issue early in the pandemic.

Questioning the data

Parsons pointed to the county’s coronavirus testing program with Lancaster General Health and the speed at which it was rolled out last year. He said his frustration with the health department conversation has been a reflexiveness by some to assume that counties with health departments have fared better than those without.

“If that’s true, OK then what is the data or the metrics that show that?” Parsons asked. “Is it death rate, or is it other data and metrics that show because of a health department other communities are in a better position and no one has provided that to me.”

Data from the department of health shows that compared to the six counties with health departments, Lancaster has the second worst death rate per 100,000 residents (behind Philadelphia), and the worst rate of cases per 100,000. Lancaster has nearly 1,500 more cases per 100,000 residents than the average of the six counties with health departments.

Comparing all counties in Pennsylvania, the counties with health departments had lower coronavirus deaths rates than those without. The rate was 166 deaths per 100,000 residents in counties with health departments, and 203 per 100,000 in counties without a health department. Average cases per 100,000 were also lower across the state for counties with health departments compared to counties without, 6,730 to 7,744, respectively.

Lancaster is performing better than four of the six counties with health departments when it comes to the rate of death of long-term care residents.

D’Agostino questioned the reliability of the state’s data.

“Data in and of itself does not prove a cause-and-effect relationship,” he said in an email. “It can suggest a correlation (or not) that requires deeper research and analysis to find reasons for the differences that either prove or disprove a cause-and-effect relationship.”

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