Leading Through the Times of COVID-19
A conversation with Erie County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper
At the end of a recent phone interview, Erie County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper says she wants to thank the people of Erie County.
"I just want to say that to people: Thank you very much for caring about your fellow citizens, thank you for caring about a community. And we will get through this together."
She also says she is grateful.
"I will tell you, Ben, I am just really grateful that I'm in the position I'm in right now because I don't know that I've ever in my life felt that I have made more of a difference in terms of my community and the welfare of the people here than I am right now," she says. "I know that collectively, we have saved lives. And our community, collectively, we have kept a lot of people from getting very sick. And that's huge. And so I am just grateful that I am in the position I'm in right now. And I am grateful to all the people who are really taking this seriously and helping us because it is a community effort. I can't do this alone; my team can't do this alone."
The this is a public health and economic crisis. Either alone would be a critical challenge for any leader, but COVID-19 has brought about both globally, including at the doorstep of Erie County.
Its toll for some has been the loss of jobs. For others, lives.
From the pandemic's dawn to its darker hours, Dahlkemper has been at the forefront of the local response, one that has seen far fewer positive cases and deaths than other counties in Pennsylvania. In her own words, she discusses the response of the county's health department, her routine press briefings, her role in the proverbial air traffic control tower, what she most fears as we march towards summer, and what she's most optimistic about.
Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity, find the longer transcript here.
Ben Speggen: Early on, you began hosting a daily press briefing. Why was it important to make that a part of what I presume is already a jam-packed day for you?
Kathy Dahlkemper: For me, it was important to reach out to the citizens of this community and give them the best information that I have at the moment I have it. It also is a chance for me to be able to connect with our media in a safe way. A huge thank you to WQLN Public Media for setting up the studio in such a way that any media that wants to join can get a live feed, can ask questions directly to me, and get those answers. It's been a win for the media who wants access, and it's been a win for the citizens who want the information.
BS: This is presumably the most people have seen local government in action on a regular basis. How do you think the crisis has affected the public's perception of local government?
KD: It's been a huge positive — that people see where their county dollars have gone, where they are going, and why it's so needed, that we have this part of our government structure. I'm getting a lot of very positive notes. People are just saying they are so glad that they have a local figure who's out there speaking every day.
They can watch the national [coverage] and they can watch the state, but they want to know what's going on in their own community. Having me out there speaking to it gives them some sense of reassurance that somebody is watching over this, working, doing the job that needs to be done.
And, of course, it's not just me; it's the whole team of people that I'm out there representing when I am speaking. And I've tried to make sure I highlight just the amount of work happening from this whole team.
BS: Some might have been surprised to find that not every county in the commonwealth has a health department and that Erie is one of 10 out of 67 counties or municipalities that have a health department. Are you seeing enough resources allocated to local health departments, like ours, to work on something like this? What might we learn from COVID-19 moving forward of the role of health departments in local communities like ours?
KD: What we knew even prior to COVID-19 was that the state of Pennsylvania had not invested in public health the way that it should have. And I think what we've learned also is our federal government, and even our local government, has not invested in public health the way it should have in order to really be able to react quickly to something of this nature.
My leader of the health department, Melissa Lyon, has been saying for a while, something is going to happen, and we are not ready. And that something was COVID-19.
Contact tracers — the people who are actually talking to those who are positive with COVID-19, getting them isolated, giving them the instructions they need, and then finding out who their close contacts were, and then getting those people to quarantine — those people were already on the job because they do that kind of work every day around things such as tuberculosis or sexually transmitted diseases and HIV. They know what they're doing, they're very skilled at it, and they could easily jump from that work to working pretty much solely on COVID-19. And the same on our environmental side.
As the governor shut down our businesses, they went into more of an enforcement mode. And we were right on top of that, with monitoring the businesses that were open to make sure they were following guidelines and the businesses that needed to be closed.
From the beginning we said, "We're not the hammer; we're actually the hand out." So we were trying to reach our hand out to businesses and say, "How can we help you? This is what you need to do. We want to be your partner in this." And that has been very successful.
BS: Could you go to the bookshelf and pull out a plan and say, "Here's how to deal with a pandemic," or is this a real-time response to pivot these people quickly?
KD: It was both. We had a pandemic plan that was actually being reworked as all of this sort of came about, and both the Department of Health and Office of Public Safety have emergency management pieces, and they had been collectively working on redoing our pandemic plan. They were waiting on the state, because the state was doing their pandemic plan. We hadn't finalized ours, because we didn't want to have anything that would conflict with the state plan.
Those first couple weeks were extremely hectic, and we often said "We're building this plane as we fly it," figuring out first our Incident Command System, which is agile. You can move fast when you need to, and the structure can build out and can contract in as needed in the pandemic.
It took us a bit to get there, because this is something none of us have ever experienced before. The last time this happened was over 100 years ago in our country. You can practice all you want on these things, but, you know, you learn a lot in the moment when no one's ever experienced it before.
BS: I like your phrasing of "building the plane as we fly it," and I can't help but see your role as potentially the pilot — or, maybe in the air traffic control towers? How is this crisis redefining the role of county executive for you?
KD: It's important to let you all know that the Incident Commander for this whole thing is Melissa Lyon. She is someone who has expertise. So she, I guess, would be the pilot. And I probably would be the person in air traffic control, and I'm overseeing the whole incident command with her leading it.
I also have to think about all of the other pieces out there, so I have to have that 360 view of everything else going on in the community as a whole so that I can bring things into the discussions we're having from the outside that need to be brought in — issues that might be happening on the outside the that command structure needs to know about. I like your analogy, but I think that's really what it was. She's the pilot, flying the plane; I'm out there with a big view up in the tower talking to her and the whole team, keeping that bigger view of what's going on on the outside.
BS: Erie County hasn't been immune to the economic impact of COVID-19. Yet it was one of the first 24 counties to be transitioned to Yellow from Red. Where do you assign credit when it comes to the public health response to the crisis if you really had to point to three key things that we did right from the get-go to get us to where we are today?
KD: We started contact tracing on the first positive, and we have not stopped. Our epidemiologist, he actually said in the beginning, "I don't think we can continue to do this, and I'm not sure if all this is going to make a difference." And he became a believer. He said, "What we are doing is right." And we have to find a way to continue to do this because this is what's making the difference. So that's the first thing.
I think the second thing was our early stay-at-home order. I was watching the rest of the state, and the governor put a stay-at-home order on Montgomery County and in those counties around the Philadelphia area, and then I saw some other numbers starting to pop up, and I actually said, "I'm going to put a stay-at-home order in place."
Because we have a Home Rule Charter here, I was able to do that; I didn't have to wait for the state, but I did call down to the governor. We talked about this with his staff, and I said, "I would love to have the governor's support on this," because we had four cases at the time and all those other counties had 40 or more. The governor agreed, and he backed me up on it. I remember listening to one of his press conferences when the press asked him, "Why did you put Erie County under stay-at-home order when they have so few cases?" He said because they had conversations with leadership there, and we agreed that it was the right thing to do. That was huge for our areas to put that in place so early.
And then third, I'm gonna go back to this enforcement piece. Our education-enforcement team would go out to these businesses, and if they weren't allowed to be open, they would say you need to close.
They had just maybe one or two businesses that were difficult to deal with, but they finally came around. And now, as we are opening back up in the Yellow Phase, this is the team that went out the other day up to the Millcreek Mall area and spoke to the businesses and helped them figure out what they needed to do. They've been educating, educating, educating throughout this.
Let me say also on that enforcement-education team, that's the team that also would go out if there was an issue with one of our isolation or quarantine individuals. As you know, we had one person who unfortunately spent a night in jail. But it's a serious thing when you're under isolation and quarantine; it's what's going to help make our community safe.
We've had well over 500 people under quarantine, over this time, and I want to thank every one of those people who spent 14 days sitting in their home, often never getting any symptoms. But there are some who did get symptomatic and they helped to truly stop the spread of COVID-19 in our community.
BS: What would you say is the one thing that you are most optimistic about as we head into summer, and conversely, what would you say is your biggest fear as we head into summer?
KD: Oh, gosh, my biggest fear is that people will get careless about the guidelines — about the social distancing, the physical distancing — that they need to practice; about wearing a mask when they're out around other people that they don't live with; about washing their hands frequently and using their sanitizer. Because those are the only tools we have right now. We really are dependent upon the people of Erie County to do those things and to do them well.
What I am optimistic about is that we know when you're outside, the spread of COVID-19 is less likely than when you're inside of a building. There are just not as many surfaces for it to get on, the breeze kind of blows the virus, you know, maybe away from you. And so hopefully we can all be outside more, enjoying our beautiful county. And obviously getting some better mental attitudes because the weather's better. And we all seem to have a better state of mental health when the weather's better. But I do feel that the summer could see a lower transmission of the virus if everyone follows the guidelines, and we spend more time outside with our friends and family than we do inside.
Follow Dahlkemper's live streams at WQLN's Facebook page, facebook.com/WQLNPublicMedia.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity, find the longer transcript here.