Leading Through the Times of COVID-19: Full Interview
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.
Ben Speggen: Early on, you began hosting a daily press briefing, and you're still going strong with them. Why was it important to make that a part of what I presume is already a jam-packed day through the crisis 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, and the daily press briefings have given me that opportunity. It also is a chance for me to be able to connect with our media in a safe way. So, of course, media all wants to have interviews and talk and ask questions, and yet we know that the social distancing is so important, and this way – and first of all, huge thank you to WQLN for setting up the studio. They set it up in such a way that any media that wants to join can get a live feed of me speaking, can ask questions directly to me, and get those answers, and I think 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: There's been plenty said about focusing on one's physical and mental health during the crisis. What are you doing to keep well during the crisis? Moments to unplug? Are you doing 20 hour days? Are you finding the chance to take a nap when you can? Do some gardening? What are you doing to stay collected and calm and continue to lead during the crisis?
KD: I have gotten into a good habit of taking, at a minimum, a 30-minute walk every day, and that gets me out into nature and into the fresh air, whether it's raining or snowing or hopefully sunny [laughs]. I find a time to get out there and do that.
I also do yoga on a regular basis, and sometimes it's just a quick 15 minutes, but whether it's 15 minutes or an hour, yoga has really helped me for years now to try to stay mindful, and to focus on what's important in life.
And then one of the great things about all of this is I'm actually able to eat home every night. Much of my life prior to COVID-19, and stay home order, was evenings out at multiple events. And although I do miss all those events and I miss seeing so many of the people that I've seen so often during these years as your county executive, I like to cook, my husband likes to cook, and we love to eat really healthy food. So I'm eating really well and trying all sorts of new recipes. And so that's actually fun, too.
BS: What's your favorite recipe you've made several times now that you both are excited about?
KD: We found this really good tofu curry that we've made almost weekly. So that's one of the ones but I have two cookbooks. I've got the Blue Zone Kitchen cookbook that was given to me for the holidays. And I've been trying some of the new recipes in the Blue Zone cookbook. And then my daughter gave me this great cookbook, Six Seasons. And it's six seasons of growth, vegetables, and so just starting to get into that one as we're getting into spring here and we have asparagus and kale and some of those early crops.
BS: I would highly recommend, if you're looking to add a third book, Vegetable Unleashed by Jose Andreas, it's a really good cookbook oriented around vegetables.
KD: Okay, I'm gonna try that one out.
BS: You talked about being able to get information to people quickly on the daily press briefings and to be able to interact with the press and have the press features those live feeds. This is presumably the most people have seen local government on a regular basis in action. How do you think the crisis has affected the public's perception of local government?
KD: One of the interesting things in April was county government month. And I made the statement at the end of a briefing recently that I think for the first time and maybe in a long time people are really beginning to understand what county government does. County government's always been that enigma that's difficult to put your hands around and many people don't really understand – they understand their municipal government much better. So I think that'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, whether they come email or snail mail. And people are just saying they are so glad that they have a local figure who's out there speaking every day. Because they can watch the national and they can watch the state, but they want to know what's going on in their own home, 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, 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 going on from this whole team. And I think that gives a lot of people – from what they've told me in their notes – a sense of calm and a sense of comfort that their government is working for them.
BS: Speaking of team and tax dollars, I think some might have been surprised to find that not every county in the Commonwealth has a health department. And Erie is one of 10 out of 67 counties that have a health department.
Can you speak to a little bit about the role that the department has had through this process? And, do you see the resources being greatly enough deployed to a health department locally, like ours, to work on 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's something with COVID-19.
Many other states, including I, think the state of New York, every county has its own health department. And in Pennsylvania, it's much less locally controlled, it's very decentralized, and the State Department of Health does the work in those 57 counties that we do in Erie County.
I found this out during this time period that there was a strong discussion that went on a number of years back to actually close our Department of Health and to let the state just run whatever we needed, and thank goodness there were leaders who were forward-thinking enough to say no to that.
Contact tracers – the people who are actually talking to the person who's 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. We have a strong environmental team that goes out, inspects all our restaurants, which I think most people know about that. But they also inspect tattoo shops; they have a team that inspects all of our septic systems throughout the whole county, and they help with the water quality inspection and our beaches.
So this team was also easily transferred into our COVID response. 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 need to be closed, we actually went out and we closed them down if they were open. And we're used to doing that, because we do that with restaurants sometimes, right? So they have a good skill set that was transferable into this structure that we needed to respond to COVID-19.
Unfortunately, all the counties around us in Pennsylvania, and as we said, 57 of them total, don't have that kind of team in place. And so when it came to the enforcement piece, that was left to law enforcement, and I believe, from what I hear, nowhere near the work was being done in all those other counties that we were doing in our county when it came to working with our businesses.
From the beginning we said, "We're not a hammer to hammer down; 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: Was this a process that you were unpacking minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour, day-by-day, figuring out how to adapt to the crisis? Or was there some sort of plan in place where you could go to the bookshelf and pull it off and say, "Here's how to deal with a pandemic," whether that's from state preparation, or from prior administrations preparing, or your own administration preparing, or is this a real-time response to pivot these people quickly?
KD: Well, 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 has 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, so we hadn't finalized ours, because we didn't want to have anything that would conflict with the state plan.
So the first days of the pandemic, as we were looking at these plans and asking the state, "Are you going to bring forward your plan?" And the state responded "Yes, we're going to." Now, we actually never got it from the state. And I think just because things started evolving so quickly, there was no time to look at the plan. We were actually in the middle of it.
Those first couple weeks were extremely hectic, and we often said we're building this plane as we fly it, figuring out first of all our Incident Command System, which is a very military structure, but it's what you need to get the work done. And you have no more than five people reporting to one person. So it's very agile, the whole structure, and you can move fast when you need to. And the structure can build out and structure can contract in as needed in the pandemic.
So we were building that structure up. And then all of a sudden, we realized we all needed to be socially distant from each other. So then we had to figure out how do we do that and still communicate and make sure that we're getting the work done. Because normally, if you're having a flood or tornado that responding to, or some other disaster, everybody's in the room, right, everybody's together, you're talking, you're sharing, and now we realize we can't have everybody in the room, we've got to actually be apart from each other.
So then the technology piece had to be figured out, as every business had to, but we had to do it quickly and be able to do it in a way where we could still respond adequately. So there were many weeks of adjusting and readjusting and reconfiguring and bringing more people on. And, you know, we finally got to a place where I think we all felt very comfortable with our structure. But it took us a bit to get there. Because, again, this is something none of us have ever experienced before. The last time this happened was over 100 years ago in our country, and so when no one's ever done it, and you can practice all you want on these things, but you know, you learn a lot in the moment.
BS: I really liked 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. But how is this crisis redefining the role of county executive for you? Because like you said, we haven't experienced this in over 100 years. You know, we can't go back and consult recent leadership to say how they pivoted how has this redefined the role for you?
KD: So I think 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 [laughs]. And I'm overseeing the whole incident command with her leading it. But 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 needs to be brought in issues that might be happening on the outside that command structure needs to know about. I like your analogy, but I think that's really what it was. She's, she's a pilot, flying the plane. I'm out there with a big view up in the tower talking to her and the whole team but also keeping that bigger view of what's going on on the outside.
BS: In talking about that bigger view, up through state government, what has communication been like? Daily? Weekly? What has the tone of that communication sounded like?
KD: You know, it's been a bit frustrating at times, and I've been pretty honest about that, I think, in my briefings, that we had hoped to have better information sooner, faster, more complete from the state, and I would say it's getting better all the time. But, with that being said, I also know that at the state, they're dealing with all of these counties, they're dealing with all of the people of Pennsylvania, and a much, much bigger footprint, of course. They also, as I said, didn't have the resources put behind public health – they hadn't for a long, long time. And so now we're trying to bring resources in and we're trying to figure out how to do this and how to address all the concerns. And now you have the east side of the state to exploding and cases. And, you know, you've just got a lot of things to juggle.
So I do want to give them some slack, I guess, on knowing that, you know, they're trying to do the best I can to and I know for a fact that I think it was seven or eight weeks straight. Every person in the Department of Health on the state level is working every day. No one's sitting at home, not doing their job. Everyone is working overtime and trying to do the best they can.
Of course, we would have liked some better communication on some things and we would have liked to have had answers sooner. But, you know, once we got going on things, and we started pushing, honestly, Erie County, especially as we knew we were going to Yellow we really started pushing the states how hard – I was reaching out to the DCED secretary and I was reaching out to the governor's office and Melissa Lyon and her team are reaching out the Department of Health and we just kept saying we need to know these answers. And then we would send questions and we've had numerous conversations with them. And so, you know, that was part of my role too. I can reach out politically down to the state and say, "We've got to have this information; we need to have these conversations." And so we started getting better information. And again, the communication is improving over time. I think we're all learning as we go.
BS: Down through local government, what his conversations been like when you're talking to leaders at the municipal level in Erie County? Daily? Weekly? What is the tone of like when you have local leaders looking up to you?
KD: I've always tried to make myself accessible to anyone who needs answers to questions, and my whole staff is accessible. Early on, I tried to have conversations where we invited all the local leaders to get on a phone call, and we had a few of those, and then reached out specifically to, for example, the mayor of the city of Erie and the mayor of Corry, and some of our bigger municipalities, Millcreek, for example. Especially when maybe there would be an issue that would pop up, I would also reach out to them. And I mean, honestly, some days. I was just so busy, I wasn't thinking about anything else about just getting the job done that we were doing right then and there, but I am always available for a phone call if somebody needed me.
And then of course, there's a lot of other leaders besides the political leaders that I used to be in touch with. The Chamber, I've been in touch with them a lot, because we know that the business issues in our economy and the closure of those businesses and just the difficulty that that is for our community as a whole, that's been a constant kind of contact with them. And I've been on a lot of the Lead Team calls, which all the economic development entities are on those meetings, and I try to get on there as often as I can to answer their questions and give them information and get information from them.
And then there's of course, a ton of emails going back and forth with a whole myriad of people and interest. And even today, I was on the phone with John Oliver, you know, talking about Visit Erie and what does it look like going into our busiest season of the year in terms of tourism, which is such a big part of our economy? So I spent a lot of time connecting with those entities out there.
The superintendence of all the school districts – we have 13 of them, and my team and I've had ongoing conversations with the superintendents as they've been trying to navigate everything, including graduation, and what does that look like?
And there's many, many more entities like that, that we continue to have conversations with.
BS: You were a key part of "A Prescription for Action: Local Resolve in Ending the Opioid Crisis," a joint effort between the National League of Cities in the National Association of Counties. How is the COVID-19 crisis impacting that and other crises? And how has it impacted the rest of the work that everyone was doing up until the crisis hit? What does that look like leading through, managing through a crisis when it comes to all the other things that are still happening in the real world?
KD: It's been interesting because some of the work that we do in county government every day has really slowed – it came almost to a halt in the early days. But I'll give you an example, the Office of Children and Youth, our call volume as of last week was down about 50 percent. Normally, children are in school. They're around a lot of mandated reporters. Calls come in, we go out and respond and investigate. Having our calls down 50 percent concerns us. We don't think the neglect and abuse of children is not happening at all. But we just think that there's no one to report it, maybe that these children are around.
Those are the things that concern us the same with drug and alcohol issues. We haven't actually seen a huge slowdown in that, but we haven't seen a huge spike, either. That's been interesting. It's sort of been steady. But will there be more issues as we start to come out of this? And will we find out that there's people out there really struggling, that didn't come forward because of COVID-19 for a myriad of reasons? We don't know what that's going to look like.
We know mental health is an issue. So, early on, we put out a helpline, a chat line where people could call somebody and just talk to them, because people who maybe have never had issues with mental health, they've never gone and sought any help with that, may be feeling anxious, depressed, you know, a myriad of feelings that we might have.
The state put out another line that's 24/7 – ours was just during the day. But we were trying to utilize our resources that we have in county government to start to new things, at least temporarily.
And then there was the whole issue of the homeless population. They go to the library, often, particularly the Blasco Library during the day. It was cold, and where did they go because we had to close down the library? And then what about at nighttime, and what if shelter doesn't want to let somebody in who's coughing, for example?
So we had to figure out something around that. We worked very diligently through my Department of Human Services with our agencies to do that type of work. And with the city of Erie, because that's where most of the homeless reside, or are at this point, and so, we work to find a location that we could get those people who are homeless, but the shelters don't want to let them in. Yeah, and rightfully so, if they're not feeling well, so we found a place where we could house them.
And, and then we had some homeless coming in from another place, maybe they were returning from Philadelphia, let's just say. Gosh, they should be in quarantine for 14 days. So then we had to come up with a place where we could quarantine people. And we would get the meals and take care of them, but that they could stay someplace for 14 days, and make sure that they didn't have COVID-19 before they kind of joined the rest of the population out there.
So, a lot of complicated issues that the county was helping to navigate. And then finally, we started a whole health equities division within our Incident Command Structure, because it became very important to address the health inequities that have been out there forever, or even exaggerated, exacerbated during a time of a pandemic.
So let's just take testing for example. If some of these testing places you have to have a car to get there. You actually are supposed to stay in your car where you get tested. Some people in our community don't have a car, and a bus doesn't even go to that site. So we're working on trying to get more testing into some of the neighborhoods where we would have these health inequities. And then what we're hoping is that as we build trust within these neighborhoods and within these populations, that maybe after the pandemic, we can actually do a better job of improving the health equity issue within these neighborhoods.
So that we're working on. That's ongoing work, and it's exciting work.
But county government is starting to come back. We plan on opening the courthouse up again on June 1. The Health Department's got to get back to the work that they always do, getting back to inspecting our restaurants, even if they are only doing takeout and delivery. We got to get back to doing STD clinics and things like that we Adagio Health took over a lot of that work for us during this time, but how do we get back to doing the work that we need to do and yet still keep the structure. Because COVID-19 isn't going away and won't until we have a vaccine.
BS: Other county executives or county commissioners given your work with the National Association of Counties – are you're looking to other counties that are model examples, or are you communicating what Erie is doing effectively, you know, a lot of what you just talked about how other counties can replicate that or learn from what we're doing? Are those is that part of the the phone tree that has many, many branches I'm coming to find?
KD: It is. I have ongoing calls with a couple of different groups from the National Association of Counties. I'm in a cohort of county executives, since we all because we have a little bit different form of government and our Commissioner friends do, we have different challenges and different opportunities.
And then I'm with another group, we were working on the economic mobility issue. That was in the news when I went out to a few different places to see what was going on across the country. And so that group, which is also some county executives, but also a number of county commissioners from around the country, we are also gathering and we're actually kind of increasing those calls now because we think we have a lot to share with each other and, and maybe some strategies going forward as, as we all try to recover from this.
And then the county association of Pennsylvania, we've had numerous calls together.
I've been in touch with Rich Fitzgerald from Allegheny County; Mark Poloncarz from Erie County, New York; Armond Budish from Cuyahoga County in Ohio. We talk fairly regularly because I want to know what's going on in their counties. We have so much in connection to those three counties, so I've really tried to stay up on what's happening in those three communities.
And then a lot of the county commissioners in our area – Crawford, Warren, Venango, Forests counties. Those county commissioners and I talk a lot anyway. They are looking to us, particularly because we have a health department and they know the work we've been doing.
They're concerned as we go into Yellow, and then eventually into green, how they keep up with us when they don't have the kind of team that I have. So we even offered, you know, is there a way for us to expand our, our footprint, and help with some of the work in those counties?
One of the counties reached out to me said, "How do we get a health department?" "Well, we'll get you all that information, but I can't really get it for you right now, because we're just too tied up in responding to COVID. But I think you're on the right track and the fact that down the road, you need to have the health department."
BS: Erie County hasn't been immune to the economic impact of COVID-19. Yet it was one of the 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 that we did right from the get-go to get us to where we are today to get us to Yellow?
KD: We started contact tracing on the first positive, and we have not stopped. Every positive and every county has had full contact tracing done, and then all the work that that entails. I believe, we might be the only county in the whole of Pennsylvania where that has happened. I think the other counties where they have health departments, they got overwhelmed. And they couldn't do it. I think the closest one probably would be Allegheny. I don't know for sure that they haven't done it on everybody. They started getting quite a few cases too. So I'm not sure if they did, but from Melissa Lyon, conversations that she has with the other health departments, that was difficult to keep up. 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."
Now because we have 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. I do know for a fact that there's not another county in Pennsylvania that has put together this – I like to call it our education team because really, enforcement sounds so punitive – but 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 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 – well, it's kind of a dual role between the contact tracing team and the enforcement team. As you all 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, I think, 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 help to truly stop the spread of COVID-19 in our community.
BS: Two final questions, and I'll lump them together. What would you say 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 and enjoying our beautiful county. And obviously getting some better mental attitude 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 be 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.
BS: Truly the last question now: Is there a question that you wish the media would ask you during the daily press briefing?
KD: I pretty much talk about everything I want, so I don't know that there's much. But 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. 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. And so I just want to say that to people, thank you very much for caring about your fellow citizen, thank you for caring about a community. And we will get through this together.