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We must consider a Health Department

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Warren County has been under the radar. It speaks to our rural community and good neighbors.

When it comes to the number of cases, while low, there have been plenty of inconsistencies. As staff reporter Brian Ferry has documented throughout the health-care crisis, numbers have fluctuated. Sometimes the numbers are too high, sometimes they are too low.

“As COVID-19 cases are confirmed, we conduct a case investigation,” a Pennsylvania Department of Health communications deputy press secretary said. “During these investigations, we will correct any addresses if needed.”

Those erratic numbers also point to a lack of accountability. Even Warren General Hospital, which should have access to the most accurate information, is not fully briefed on the latest number of infections.

This gets back to an idea proposed earlier this month: the creation of a local Health Department that is more accountable to residents here. It could be a stand-alone model or could include nearby counties.

County Commissioner Ben Kafferlin said creating and funding a department of health would cost the county about $80,000 annually. A the regional office, he said, would cost about $100,00 a year. “Venango, Crawford, and Forest (counties) have expressed significant interest,” he said.

Until the pandemic, this was not a hot-button issue. For now, it certainly deserves more debate.

But a local Health Department is no panacea to any crisis. And, it does not mean those serving will not make mistakes.

This week, despite having a health department, Chautauqua County is on fire. A major outbreak at a food processing plant in Dunkirk that employs about 650 workers. While knowing of at least nine cases on Aug. 21, the county and its health department to our north did not disclose any information to the public until after state Gov. Andrew Cuomo was the first elected official to publicly discuss the situation.

That was far too late.

Some workers and individuals who could have received a warning long before last weekend regarding the cluster of positive COVID-19 cases at Fieldbrook Foods in Dunkirk ultimately became victims.

It was a cruel and unfortunate outcome, but that was the strategic decision made by top leaders in determining how to handle the incidents with the major employer in the north county. Instead of taking action or addressing a high-risk situation, they deliberately waited or wished it would go away.

“The initial case investigations found several confirmed cases associated with this employer, indicating the potential for a larger outbreak to occur,” said Christine Schuyler, Chautauqua County health director during the Monday press conference. “As such, we have been proactively working with New York State Department of Health and administration of Fieldbrook Foods to manage and control the spread of disease. The increased number of positive tests reported this weekend substantiated our concern about a potentially larger outbreak.”

For the record, there was nothing proactive about how this was handled. The Health Department was supposed to be the first line of defense. If it begins to see cases mounting that date back to Aug. 16, why so mum when answering to the community?

What happened in Dunkirk can happen here. Seeing how the numbers have been botched — or inconsistent from Pennsylvania–adds to concerns moving forward. A county Health Department is not perfect. But, even with a modest cost, it is more accountable.

John D’Agostino is the regional editor of the OBSERVER, The Post-Journal and Times Observer in Warren, Pa. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call (716) 487-1111, ext. 253.

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