Among the many who have worked beyond what they had previously thought was their limit these past two years is City of Lancaster Chief Health Officer Kim Wissler.
City health officers are normally tasked with investigating disease and pestilence outbreak — from hepatitis to bedbugs — and coordinating and educating the public about health-related issues. Although Wissler has spent nearly 22 years keeping her home city safe from ongoing public health risks, the past two years have presented bigger and newer challenges.
Among Wissler’s regular responsibilities is overseeing the safety of Lancaster city’s 450-plus food establishments, from grocery stores to cafes and dining halls.
While trying to maintain a cycle of inspections — the results of which will be displayed like a report card in eateries throughout town — Wissler has served as a go-to COVID-19 liaison for restaurant owners. She interpreted Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance and connected the input of public health consultants like Dr. Bill Fife — president of the Lancaster City Board of Health — with in-crisis restaurateurs to help facilitate quarantines and safety measures. She worked tirelessly to get businesses reopened as quickly as possible while balancing the safety and hopes of our citizens and guests.
Unfortunately, some smaller establishments were forced to close permanently, and even the casual observer notes that public dining rooms are not as full as they were three years ago.
Thankfully, though, Wissler reports that business owners in our city have been 98% cooperative with her counsel, demonstrating real perseverance and a “safety first” attitude that have helped our area’s COVID-19 case counts to drop dramatically in the past few months. And with restrictions being relaxed, the warmer seasons will be a welcome opportunity to advise vendors at outdoor fairs, festivals and events.
Wissler has also helped to build a mindful eating/healthy living program, the hallmark of which is a seed distribution and home gardening program called Mindful Eating Health Living From the Ground Up. It is a back-to-the-backyard initiative run entirely with donations of seed, soil and containers from a variety of area establishments like Four Seasons Produce, Kegel’s Produce, Ken’s Gardens and Esbenshade’s Garden Center.
Wissler coordinates resource drop-offs and pickups that have reached more than 200 families within the city in the past year alone. This program continues to evolve, with unclaimed starter plants and seed being further distributed to community gardeners.
Wissler also has plans to coordinate teaching by Penn State master gardeners and Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health community health and wellness representatives to ensure that preserving and canning skills make those crops enjoyable year-round.
Restaurants and food are not her only concerns, however. Wissler is also the chief adviser for municipal employees, helping guide the police department and other agencies regarding quarantines, isolations and how to deliver safe and appropriate pandemic-related information to a public bombarded with quickly changing messages.
And Wissler has continued other endeavors, including helping to coordinate lead safety and abatement in the city, something she’s been involved with throughout her 22 years in her role. She helps to enforce the process, issuing citations and advising landlords about keeping our youngest citizens safe from exposure.
Additionally, she is our city’s primary vector controller — read “rat and mosquito management.” Thus, she oversees not only old tire collection — which removes potential insect breeding grounds — but also does most of the city baiting herself. As such, she is the one crawling into the sewers and drains, seeking the most effective locations to deal a potent blow to disease vectors.
Over the years, Wissler has written several directives, including the city’s tattoo and body-piercing ordinance. With about 15 establishments and more than 120 artists throughout the city, Wissler has helped to facilitate the training to keep artists mindful regarding needle- and blood-borne pathogen risks.
While Lancaster County has not yet committed to the development of a health department, and further community-needs assessment is an ongoing need, Wissler is excited about the creation of a City Health Bureau.
As chief, she has overseen the hiring of a social worker, and the city is now looking for two additional health officers to join her team. A viable candidate must be able to study for and pass various certification exams — Wissler holds three separate licenses, including one in lead and another in pest control — but there is the opportunity for apprenticeship, during which Wissler will be able to provide training.
More hands on deck will mean a chance to codify relationships with the city’s Bureau of Property Maintenance and Housing Inspections, to catch up on inspections and reinspections that linger in a post-pandemic world, and to help with new initiatives that Wissler has her eyes on.
Food insecurity in the city remains a concern, and Wissler has hopes for pay-as-you-go food distribution, for cold-storage facilities that will provide low-cost or no-cost opportunities for those who cannot pay and for expansion of the seed distribution and gardening program.
We continue to hope for a brighter Lancaster future. One way to accomplish that is to thank those who have helped us through our darkest days. Kim Wissler is certainly one of those heroes. Thank you, Kim!
Dr. Corey Fogleman is a local family physician and the vice president of the Lancaster City Board of Health.