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TRACY: Victories Claimed by Delco’s Health Department Ring Hollow

This column first appeared in Broad + Liberty.

Credit for good works matters a lot in politics, as it naturally should.

The Delaware County Council understands this, which is why the county put out a year’s-end press release touting all of the achievements of the $20,000,000 health department the county formally created in April — a long-standing dream of Democrats and progressives in the county.

Yet, a closer look at some of the numbers the county released shows the county is claiming credit for activities that were likely already offered by the state,  claiming credit for activities that were going to be undertaken anyway or, in one case, grossly exaggerating their efforts.

Take the county’s statistic that it “administered 172,000 Covid-19 vaccine doses as of the end of November.” You might think that’s the number of shots the health department gave in the clinic at the strip mall in Yeadon that the county overpaid for. But, after Broad + Liberty asked for a breakdown by location, we learned that the site only jabbed 1,149 people since the Delaware County Health Department was formally established around April 2022.

The full breakdown provided by a spokesperson with the Delaware County Health Department shows us a summary of the number of Covid vaccines actually “administered” by DCHD from April 2022 through December 22, 2022, by location:

  • Chester: 92
  • Yeadon: 1,149
  • Yeadon (children <5): 74
  • Homebound: 519
  • Community events throughout the county: 530

After Broad + Liberty questioned the County, the number of administered vaccine shots dropped from 172,000 to 2,364. I understand wanting to put your best foot forward but exaggerating the count by 170,000 is a bit much.

“Prior to April 2022, the Delaware County Covid-19 Task Force administered vaccinations at Yeadon and a range of other locations throughout the county,” said a spokesperson for DCHD.

Nothing could illustrate better the county already had the ability to provide these services [emergency vaccination rollouts, etc.] without a health department than these statistics.

Such an example only underscores the long running debate on how to best provide basic health services in the county.

A 2010 study by Johns Hopkins University examined health services in the county, acknowledging that many who commissioned the study were interested in the specific question of whether the county should create a stand-alone health department. One of the general findings was that the county could do better by simply creating more organization around services already provided for by the state.

“Public health in Delaware County does not function as a system; there is no known designated public health leader, or centralized structure for public health information,” the report said.

The county’s release has other examples of services that were already available or were already going to be undertaken, including mentions of free pregnancy testing. Other counties (Berks, for example) provide these services with state grants but also without standalone county health departments.

The county’s press release brags about restaurant inspections. Municipalities were already handling this task. In fact several communities in the county sued and are continuing to do the inspections locally.

Another of the justifications for opening the $20,000,000 taxpayer-funded health department was that the public would be better protected from the ravages of the Covid epidemic. According to a recent article in the Sunday, February 5th edition of the Delco Daily Times, the county has an infection rate 15 percent higher than the statewide rate. Only seven counties have a health department and over fifty don’t. You might ask: what am I getting for my money?

With all of this as background, it becomes more and more clear that Delaware County Democrats fell prey to the “do something” bias, also known as the “action bias.”

This bias “describes our innate tendency to respond to situations by taking some kind of action, even when we have no evidence that it will lead to a better outcome and might even make things worse,” according to an article in SciTechDaily.

Summarizing the seminal study on the bias by environmental scientists Anthony Patt and economist Richard Zeckhauser, SciTechDaily noted, “decision-makers have a bias for taking action even if it makes the situation slightly worse, and that this bias is even stronger if the decision-maker is acting as an agent for other people.”

Despite having other viable options, Delaware County Democrats made the decision to create another costly bureaucratic institution; the functions of which are nearly identical to state and municipal health services which already exist.

DCHD’s time, money, and resources would be better spent creating the superior public health outcomes it promises, rather than misattributing statistics to justify its existence.

Delco Health Department Offers Free COVID Tests

From a press release

On Friday, June 10, the Delaware County Health Department, in partnership with Personic Health Care, opened a new COVID-19 testing site at the Delaware County Wellness Center at Yeadon.
Located at 125 Chester Ave, Yeadon PA., the hours of operation are Monday, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 8:30 a.m. – 3 p.m., and on Saturdays from 9 a.m.- 1 p.m. COVID-19 testing will not be offered on Thursdays or Sundays.
Delaware County residents came out to use the walk-up and drive-thru options available for RT-PCR testing, the gold standard in COVID-19 testing, and Rapid Antigen testing. As operators of their own lab, Personic can offer PCR results via email in under 24 hours. All testing services are free to residents regardless of health insurance or immigration status.
COVID-19 testing appointments at the Delaware County Wellness Center at Yeadon are not required but are strongly suggested. Individuals can schedule a test.
COVID-19 vaccinations and boosters are also available to Delaware County residents at the Wellness Center.
“COVID-19 cases are still of concern in our county and the demand for testing in Delaware County has grown with the surge in cases this spring,” said Health Department Deputy Director Lora Siegmann Werner. “Testing and vaccines are our most effective tools to slow the spread of COVID-19 and access to these tools-
especially for our most vulnerable populations- is of the utmost importance.”

The new site, which is being operated at no cost to the county, is part of a broader effort by county officials to address the health disparities exacerbated by the pandemic by providing convenient and free testing to communities of color and working families that are more likely to contract COVID-19, more likely to suffer from chronic illnesses that can be compounded by COVID-19, and who have less access to testing and other health services.

Individuals with questions about the site, appointments, or their test results should contact Personic Customer Service at (888) 349-6980. Individuals with general COVID-19 questions can Individuals with general COVID-19 questions can contact the Delaware County Health Department Wellness Line at (484) 276- 2100.

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Delco County Health Department Holds Open House

County and local officials were on hand for an open house Friday at the newly-renovated Delaware County Wellness Center in Yeadon. It now serves as the main location for the new Delaware County Health Department.

The Delaware County Health Department (DCHD) was approved by the Pennsylvania Department of Health to act in its official capacity as a health department on April 2. It is the first new county health department to open in Pennsylvania in the past 33 years, officials said.

Prior to this, Delaware County with 576,830 people was the largest county not to have its own health department in the state. During the COVID pandemic, it relied on neighboring Chester County to help with testing and vaccinations.

The new department is expected to cost some $10 million in its first year, with continuing costs of $8 to $10 million annually. While much of the expense will come from state and federal grants, county taxpayers will pick up about 30 percent of the tab. The county also signed a five-year lease on the 11,235-square-foot site, paying more than the requested rent. Over the course of the lease, the county will pay some $250,000 more than what the real estate company had sought.

Stephanie Reese, personal health administrator

The open house event coincided with a judge’s order to stop county health department inspections in various towns and boroughs that had sued the county, which the Delaware Valley Journal reported on exclusively.

Those municipalities–Springfield, Ridley, Upper Chichester, Aston, Tinicum, Darby Township, and Marple–contend that the health department would not be open and functioning by Jan. 1, 2022 and that those towns need certainty in planning their budgets.

“Municipalities have a fiduciary responsibility to taxpayers to efficiently manage their budgets and how they spend tax dollars,” said James Byrne, an attorney representing Springfield, Ridley, and Aston townships. In some towns, switching from local to county health inspections will drive the costs up 500 percent.

Melissa Lyon, the health department director, called the ruling “unfortunate,” but said county health inspectors will continue going out to communities that are not part of the lawsuit.

The county issued this statement, “Yesterday, Judge Angelos issued a preliminary injunction against the County conducting environmental health inspections or licensing certain types of activities (including food establishments) in the seven townships which brought suit, pending a final hearing on May 25.

“While this is unfortunate, the Health Department will continue to fully serve all other portions of the county and respond to specific inquiries from residents of all townships. The county looks forward to the completion of the legal hearing and the judge’s ruling on the merits.”

Marie Carbonara, director of environmental health, called her department “a resource” for the municipalities and various businesses that are required to be inspected.

“I’m so proud of my team,” said Carbonara, who had previously served as health officer for Radnor. The Delaware Valley Journal reported on one health inspector who was a former researcher at the Drexel University’s Urban Sexuality Lab.

Meanwhile, inside the renovated Wellness Center, there are specialized pediatric and bariatric examination rooms and an exam room for tuberculosis patients with negative air pressure, said Stephanie Reese, a nurse, and personal health administrator.

Another room is filled with large refrigerators and a freezer to hold the health department’s stock of vaccines. There is a multimedia room that serves as a training center and a backup to the county 911 Center in Media, said Patrick Farley, a public health nurse.

“Since April 2, we have responded to 400 cases of communicable diseases,” said Reese. They have also been vaccinating people, including children from Ukraine and other children who need to catch up on their vaccinations to enter public schools.

Marie Dore, community health planner

The site also includes a pharmacy area where medicines will be dispensed to patients at no charge, said, Reese, and another room for blood draws.

“We’re super excited about the work,” she said. “It’s a collective effort to get these tasks accomplished.”

Vaccine clinics are still operating out of Chester County, but they hope to be in both counties by the first week of May.

“We’re integrating our COVID effort into the clinics, as well,” Reese said.


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New Delco Health Inspector Was Researcher at Urban Sexuality Lab

Pleasurable, carnal, queer…and fine cuisine?

A health inspector hired by Delaware County’s newly-opened health department to drop in on restaurants and other public spaces recently worked at the Urban Sexuality Lab at Drexel University, the Delaware Valley Journal has learned.

The Urban Sexuality Lab, or USL, “studies pleasurable, carnal, + queer cities, places, and spaces,” according to its Twitter page.

In a recent memo, USL director Jay Orne Ph.D. wrote, “Our lab studies carnality, bloody pleasure, heartfelt pain, the nebulous logic of our bodies past and future.”

Other Sexuality Lab research topics include: “Selling pleasure, danger: A typology of sex shops along the sex-positivity spectrum; Social distancing impacts HIV among men who have sex with men; the Philadelphia Gayborhoood; Health effects of police encounters on people of color.”

Zachary Babel

Zachary Babel, a former USL employee, presented a paper at a recent Sociologists for Trans Justice event, a far cry from the duties required for his new county position. That involves going to local small businesses to “conduct routine/required inspections and/or audits to ensure compliance of existing local and state public health and environmental codes, regulations, and policies,” according to the county’s website.

County health inspectors, whose starting salaries are $55,000 a year, visit restaurants and other businesses and certify their cleanliness and ensure they meet safety standards.  The county charges businesses fees for the required inspections.

When reached by phone, Babel confirmed he had worked at the Urban Sexuality Lab while working on his master’s degree in public health but declined to speak further.

Delaware County spokeswoman Adrienne Marofsky had no comment on Babel’s hiring or work for the Sexuality Lab when contacted by DVJournal. All five members of the county council also declined to comment.

The county’s takeover of health inspections from local municipal governments is already a controversial topic. Based on the newly-released rate schedule for inspection services, some Delaware County businesses could see their inspection costs double or triple. And there is no indication the county has nearly the staff it needs to replace the current inspectors.

“Unfortunately, it seems the bigger the department, the bigger the fee,” said Brian Razzi, Borough Manager of Glenolden. “The boroughs tried to keep the fees as low as possible, to avoid putting a financial burden on local businesses.

“But now, for example, the small 3rd Street Deli in Colwyn will go from paying a $50 annual inspection fee to a minimum of $266. The small Mexican grocery on Springfield Road in Clifton Heights will go from a $75 local fee to $266 under the county.”

Delaware County Council Chair Dr. Monica Taylor has argued that transitioning food establishment inspections to the county will improve outcomes and community health goals. “In addition to directly addressing the public health needs of Delaware County residents, inspections will be conducted more uniformly, rather than the varying approaches of the different municipalities,” Taylor wrote in a statement.

Meanwhile, questions about the qualifications of a former Sexuality Lab employee inspecting the heat lamps and food prep surfaces of local Delco restaurants remain.

“The Urban Sexuality Lab is breaking norms in the world of academic research, providing community for queer and ally student researchers, and advancing critical scholarship to support LGBTQ+ communities broadly,” Orne wrote.


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New County Health Inspectors Will Add to Taxpayer, Business Costs

Delaware County should allow municipalities to keep their health inspectors. That was the message from two Republicans running for Delaware County Council–Joe Lombardo and Frank Agovino–who held a press conference Monday at J.D. McGillicuddy’s in Havertown with other small business owners.

County officials had announced the county government would take over the health inspections of restaurants and stores from the 49 municipalities and make those inspections a function of the new county health department, which is slated to open in January 2022.

Lombardo, who is also the Clifton Heights mayor, said the proposal for the new health department to take over the function is a “power grab” by Delaware County that would have “catastrophic effects on our bar and restaurant owners.”

It is “something that sounds good on paper but in practice, will not work,” said Lombardo. “And will only make the situation worse.”

It makes more sense to allow municipalities to continue doing the inspections because it keeps bureaucracy to a minimum and provides a swifter turnaround time to business owners trying to open or have something approved, like a catering job, he said. The county, in its proposed regulations, gives itself 30 days to issue a permit, Lombardo noted.

“Why they’re trying to do this is nothing other than to grab the fee,” he said.

Meanwhile, the county will permit the municipalities to have their local inspectors do other tasks, such as checking restaurant grease traps, he said. But the inspectors are paid through those fees the county would take, so that will be more money for each municipality (and local taxpayers) to expend for the inspections without being allowed to charge a fee.

“It hurts the business owner and hurts the community,” said Lombardo. “For me, it’s taking away something we do for our community, for our businesses in our community.” People will no longer be able to call the borough with a problem and get it fixed quickly.

“It’s handcuffing the elected officials in the local municipalities,” said Lombardo.

Agovino said the business owners don’t dispute having a county health department deal with issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic. But they are against the county taking these inspections from the towns.

Lombardo said he sat in on a Zoom conference on the topic with county Councilwoman Monica Taylor. “I don’t think they even know what all they’re going to be doing.”

While the county planned to hire 80 people by January and start the inspections, since then the municipalities have been notified they will not be ready by then.

“You can’t find help,” said Lombardo. “How they thought they were going to hire 80 people by January 1 is beyond me.”

“I don’t know what the rush is,” said Tom Thornton, owner of McGillicuddy’s. “Maybe it’s a good idea in theory for down the road, but do I think it should be implemented by Jan. 1? It doesn’t sound like it at all. As Mr. Lombardo alluded to, it’s just going to create more tax dollars for Haverford Township, if they are not going to be able to charge the fees they charge every year, which vary by the size of your building. Who’s going to pay these people?  The county is just looking for a money grab. At whose expense. At some point, somebody is going to have to pay for the local municipalities for them to pay their employees. So now is that going to fall on the business owners or the taxpayers? Either way, it stinks. It’s  no good for anyone.”

Lombardo added, “We got beat up with the reassessment this year. We’re going to get beat up with this. There’s only so much people can take. People are on fixed incomes. There was an article that came out last week that heating oil and natural gas is going to be up 30 to 50 percent this year in the winter. How much can people take?”

A.J.  Loustau, the owner of Centrella’s Deli, said he was curious to know where the plan is coming from.

“I have a great relationship with the local health department,” he said. “We just went through a remodel. I was on the phone with them often just asking questions about how things need to be set up…they were fantastic. They always have been. I’ve never had an issue…If it ain’t broke why fix it?”

Conor Quinn owner of Kettle, a café, said he agrees with the others.

“Who are you going to call?” Quinn, who is also a Haverford Township commissioner, said that when people call him he will have to refer them to the county instead of handling a problem locally.  “That’s not fair to them.”

Thornton said he goes through Manayunk to a restaurant supply store and noticed during the pandemic that many restaurants there had set up tables for outdoor dining. He brought that idea back and was able to get local approval quickly to help his restaurant stay in business.

“It took one phone call from me to Conor,” said Thornton. “I went to the Board of Commissioners.  If we didn’t have that outdoor dining these doors would be closed and I wouldn’t be standing here today. Things like that, where I needed action sooner than 30 days and it was turned around within 30 days.”

Agovino said the county plans to use federal COVID reimbursement funds to pay for this health inspector program through 2024, but “that’s always a dangerous place when you have one-time money and you’re using it for something that is going to be reoccurring…At the end of the day, it’s going to affect small businesses and taxpayers.”

However, Adrienne Marofsky, a spokeswoman for the county, said the county health department must include an inspection program under state law.

“The state requires the county to take over local inspections under Act 315 in order to be an accredited Health Department,” she said. “Our fees are less than those charged in neighboring counties.”

Meanwhile, the new Health Department is slated to cost $10 million its first year, according to a consultant’s report.