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County board to commission feasibility study on county health department

Lindsey O'Laughlin
York Dispatch

The York County Board of Commissioners has set aside $300,000 to pay for two feasibility studies looking at what it would cost to establish a county health department and to bring broadband internet access to all county residents.

The money is part of the $40.5 million in federal funds the county received through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

Dr. Matthew Howie, York City's medical director and York County's chief health strategist, told the board Wednesday that a county health department would be able to coordinate the efforts of all of the groups and organizations working toward improving community health in response to, and beyond, the coronavirus.

“COVID-19 is a part of all of our worlds every day, but there’s going to be a point where COVID-19 recedes, and the other issues that were there before COVID-19 are still there for us to address,” he said.

County officials began looking into the feasibility of starting a local public health department a few months ago as part of the YoCo STRONG Recovery Task Force, coordinated by the York County Economic Alliance.

Dr. Matthew Howie, of York City Bureau of Health, speaks following an announcement that the York County Heroin Task Force will now be governed by and an executive board as the York Regional Opiate Collaborative, naming Howie as executive director at the York County Administrative Center in York City, Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2016. Dawn J. Sagert photo

The commissioners’ approval Wednesday was to begin scouting a consultant to perform the feasibility study for a maximum cost of $150,000. The county board hasn’t hired a firm yet but will return to a public meeting to vote on a contract once the right company is found, President Commissioner Julie Wheeler said.

Jenny Englerth, president and CEO of Family First Health and chair of the Healthy York County Coalition, served on a subcommittee of the recovery task force.

Englerth said health care providers are usually focused on an individual patient, and that one advantage of a public health department is that its sole purpose is to improve the health of the community as a whole or of subgroups within a community.

Public health departments can also leverage community-wide data sets to gain a broad understanding of issues impacting community health, she said.

Statewide, six counties and four municipalities have their own health departments.

Those are Allegheny, Bucks, Chester, Erie, Montgomery and Philadelphia counties, and the cities of Allentown, Bethlehem, Wilkes-Barre and York.

More:Should York County have its own health department?

The second feasibility study will look at the costs associated with expanding high-speed internet to York County residents who either don't have access to the infrastructure or who can't afford to pay for it.

The county board gave its approval to start looking for a contractor to complete the study, also for a maximum cost of $150,000.

Silas Chamberlain, vice president of economic and community development at the YCEA, explained why access to broadband internet is an urgent need for county residents.

Downtown Inc Chief Executive Officer Silas Chamberlin talks during a press conference at PeoplesBank Park announcing an alliance between his organization and the York County Economic Alliance Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. Bill Kalina photo

In rural parts of the county, many don't have the ability to connect to the internet because there isn't any infrastructure where they live, Chamberlain said.

And in urban areas such as York City, the infrastructure is there but the cost of service is prohibitive.

About 40% of York City residents either can't afford to pay for an internet provider or aren't aware of some of the more affordable options available, Chamberlain said.

Wheeler said the coronavirus has only amplified the digital divide, and lack of access to internet service will hamper adults who are working remotely, students who are enrolled in online classes and out-of-work job seekers trying to find new employment.

Chamberlain said he's been hearing stories of students who sit in parked cars in gas station parking lots so they can access the public Wi-Fi network for their schoolwork.

"Obviously, that’s not tenable if we’re going to be competitive in the future," he said.

More:York County OKs allotment plan for $14 million in CARES Act cash

More:Study: 30% of York County businesses could fail in coronavirus fallout