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Delaware County Health Department has helped thousands since inception this year

The head of Delaware County’s new health department recently took a moment to look back on the months following its opening and where it is now.

“It’s a rare and exciting opportunity,” county Public Health Director Melissa Lyon said. “I still feel that way nine months into our official operating.”

Melissa Lyon is director of the Delaware County Health Department.
Melissa Lyon is director of the Delaware County Health Department.

Lyon oversees an $18 million department with four divisions, three locations and 90 positions while serving thousands of people in Delaware County.

Implementing a county health department was a campaign promise of Democrats, who jumped into the endeavor when they gained a majority on county council in January 2020. The process to develop it took a little over the standard two years with requirements such as a strategic plan and public input. County officials moved forward and stayed on track despite the unexpected COVID-19 pandemic.

The department received official approval from the Pennsylvania Department of Health on April 2.

Lyon, who previously served as director of the Erie County Department of Health, arrived in Delaware County in mid-January. She credited the many people involved with the work that went into getting the state approval.

Wellness line

As she spoke about the department’s first steps, she addressed both accomplishments and challenges and highlighted the importance of setting up the 24/7 wellness line at 484-276-2100.

“We really built up our infrastructure on what we call the Delaware County Wellness Line,” she said, noting the efforts that went into getting staff trained on how to route calls and answer calls as services were changing daily.

“That’s a pretty big undertaking,” she said, adding that among the things they had to master was communicating with other departments such as the county Office of Services for the Aging and the Department of Human Services and performance management accountability from how many calls came in, how quickly did they close them, how were residents helped.

Calling it the face of the county health department, Lyon said the wellness line is “something that we put a lot of pride into. Someone will answer that phone call even if it comes in after hours.”

If it goes to voicemail, that means all of the call takers are busy. And, even though after hours call takers can’t provide services, the answering service does triage the calls, routing them back to the appropriate person.

For example, if there’s a fire at a restaurant after hours and they need someone from the environmental health division to arrive, someone from that department is notified.

“We’re very proud of that work,” Lyon said. “It seems like a small operational thing but the behind-the-scenes is actually enormous.”

Approximately 6,906 calls were handled by the wellness line this year.

How it works

The health department itself is divided into four divisions: administrative, personal health, population health and environmental health.

Personal health is the clinical and disease prevention.

Population health is known for its COVID response, and it’s also responsible for a strong focus on public health emergency preparedness, health education outreach and promotion of issues such as health living, nutrition and how to protect yourself around the holidays. Environmental health has a regulatory aspect and education of preventing communicable diseases through air, water, food and the environment.

Of the environmental health division, Lyon said, “We’ve had a wonderful reception from the municipalities where we are doing that work.”

Nearly 4,000 businesses have been visited and inspected.

The county health department doesn’t handle restaurant inspections in all municipalities in the county. In December 2021, Springfield, Ridley, Aston, Upper Chichester, Darby Township, Tinicum and Marple filed a motion in Delaware County Court of Common Pleas, seeking to prevent the Delaware County Health Department from taking over municipal inspections.

In April, Delaware County Common Pleas Judge Spiro Angelos issued a preliminary injunction allowing these municipalities to continue performing their own inspections that still stands.

In the personal and population health divisions, clinics have been operating to help combat the spread of communicable diseases.

“It’s really about protecting the population,” Lyon said, regardless of their insurance status or ability to pay.

One example is the tuberculosis clinic the county provides. It’s a scheduled clinic, not walk-in for treatment for those who are positive. Here, they also receive education on what to do next as part of their treatment.

There’s also STD and HIV clinics, both walk-ins and by appointment.

“For individuals that are willing and are able to disclose their sexual partners, we reach out to those partners and said they may have had an exposure,” Lyon explained.

The vaccine administration is part of the preventive method and the department continues to offer COVID vaccines, as well as influence and a free vaccine for children program, which distributes childhood vaccines to eligible children who can’t get it elsewhere.

COVID clinics and testing are still available with 172,615 COVID-19 vaccine doses having been administered as of the end of November. Lyon noted there is still an interest in the community for receiving booster vaccines.

Amy Zoll of Delaware County's Citizen Corps receives a COVID vaccine shot at the newly opened Delaware County Wellness Center. (KATHLEEN E. CAREY - DAILY TIMES)


Amy Zoll of Delaware County’s Citizen Corps receives a COVID vaccine shot at the newly opened Delaware County Wellness Center. (KATHLEEN E. CAREY – DAILY TIMES)

Relatedly, the department handed out free at-home COVID test kids on three Fridays.

The lead issue

The county health department is also part of a multi-disciplinary effort to eradicate childhood lead poisoning by 2027.

In a study funded by the Foundation for Delaware County, it found Delaware County has the fifth highest amount of children poisoned by lead in the entire state, and only a fraction of them are being tested.

Officials estimate as many as 1,300 children in Delaware County could potentially have elevated levels of blood.

While the Delaware County Lead Poisoning Prevention Coalition was created five years ago, Children First held a discussion in October unveiling an action plan to significantly reduce childhood lead poisoning here within five years.

The county health department also has its epidemiology team compiling data from the last five years to see what trends are increasing and what are decreasing to create a fuller picture of the health of the residents of Delaware County for the department to use as a baseline for services and programming.

‘Challenging moments’

Amid all the successes in the past year, Lyon recognized there were difficult moments, as well.

“It really has had really challenging moments not just for me but for everyone, whether they were in the leadership staff, clinical staff, clerical staff,” she said. “I think everyone would resonate that there have been a lot of challenging moments.”

One was working out information flow.

“When you’re doing a startup, its just communication,” Lyon said, whether that be across the divisions, with county operations, effectively with residents or stakeholders.

Another harkens to a problem being seen across the country: recruiting the workforce.

One influenced by that was the expectation to have all the hires have all the tools and resources ready to do the job from the first day.

The staff is currently divided among three locations.

There’s the Yeadon Wellness Center at 125 Chester Ave., the Chester Wellness Center at 151 W. Fifth St. and the administrative and environmental health divisions in the Baldwin Towers building in Eddystone.

On Dec. 14, Delaware County Council approved a $1 million agreement between the county and KCBA Architects to design a new health department headquarters at Building 1 in the Fair Acres complex in Middletown. The county is budgeting American Rescue Plan Act funds for the project.

Lyon said that the environmental health and administration divisions are scheduled to go to Fair Acres.

“They are buildings owned by the county already,” she explained.

At Baldwin Towers, the county leases the space for the department.

As the calendar year comes to an end, the health director took a moment to reflect on the realization of a department that was once only an idea.

“We are well-established,” Lyon said. “We have our feet under us. We are doing all of the fundamental public health we are expected to do. We are here for them, we are working with them and for them. (And,) there will be more exciting things in 2023.”

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