By Ron Riley
INDIANA – March 25 marked a year since Indiana County recorded its first Covid-19 case. Three weeks later, the county’s first Covid death had been confirmed. How did the county manage the pandemic’s first year? Where do we go from here?
From a citizen’s perspective, elected county officials tended to follow a public-relations approach to public-health information, similar to the profoundly flawed pandemic response of former President Donald Trump. Like the ex-president’s approach, the local experience exposed weaknesses that warrant changes from local policymakers.
A review of county commissioners’ public meetings last year found that they discussed Covid-19 for the first time on March 11, 2020. Sixteen more public meetings followed in 2020. Ten of the 16 meetings addressed Covid-19 in terms of federal relief and stimulus funding. Four meetings made no mention of the pandemic.
The public meetings supplied few if any numbers of infections or deaths. Neither did the meetings address the pandemic’s toll on public well-being, including employment, food security, domestic violence, suicide, child poverty, drug addiction and other measures of social capital and diseases of despair that have afflicted Indiana County before the pandemic. The public meetings also were muted on Covid-19 mitigation strategies, such as masking, contact tracing, hospital capacity, congregate-care infections, enforcement and related concerns.
ONE EMPHASIS emerged in the commissioners’ 2020 chronology — public relations, as opposed to substantive crisis communication. Commissioner Robin Gorman discussed the county’s pandemic “message” at an Aug. 13 Chamber of Commerce meeting.
“There are far too many outlets providing false or misleading information,” Ms. Gorman said. “We need to guide our residents safely and effectively with the proper information and the right message.”
This sounds more like controlling the message than sending the message.
The following month, during their Sept. 23 meeting, commissioners unanimously approved a motion by Ms. Gorman to pay $40,000 to Pittsburgh-based P.R. firm Pipitone Group to assist the county’s Covid-19 task force and to improve “communication with residents, business, and visitors distressed by Covid-19.”
The money bought a website and an acronym — REACH (for Resources, Education, Announcements, Communication, Help). The site was unveiled in November. It promised local information for the local community.
But it amounted to a series of links to various other websites. Updates were promised but not delivered. A monthly maintenance agreement was dropped. A related Facebook page was discontinued. Meanwhile, a Covid-19 page already existed – still exists — on the Indiana County government website.
THE EFFICACY of the commissioners’ P.R. approach can be seen through the lens of the county’s Covid infection and mortality numbers.
In June, Indiana appeared to have Covid under control. State Department of Health data recorded only 17 cases in the county for the month. Restrictions were eased.
And the number of new cases rose rapidly.
In August, the county’s new-case count jumped nearly nine-fold, to 148.
In September, the number of new cases more than doubled, to 310.
By November, the number more than quadrupled, to 1,367.
In December, the number peaked at 1,386.
The county’s first Covid-related death was recorded in April. By December, the monthly death count reached 82. For 2020, the county recorded 123 dead.
In 2021, improvement was reported for much of the first three months. But in the past two weeks, the numbers have turned upward. March recorded 287 new Covid cases in the county.
Through March 31, the county’s yearlong total Covid case count was 5,368. The county’s total Covid-related deaths are 161, 38 of them in 2021 alone.
The New York Times reported on March 30 that the county remains at “very high risk” and that new cases had increased by 33 percent in the preceding two weeks.
WHAT LESSONS can Indiana County citizens and commissioners learn from their year of Covid?
— Commissioners and other county officials should encourage residents to get the vaccine and follow mitigation measures, like masking. They need to say it. They need to address vaccine hesitancy.
— Commissioners should heed their own pandemic response plan adopted in March 2020 and act to make external communication a “critical” priority. During public meetings, they turn to county emergency management Director Tom Stutzman for pandemic updates. Commissioners should make Mr. Stutzman the county’s messenger and point man for public information and interaction.
— Commissioners should open their Covid-19 task force meetings to the public, and they should embrace public participation and interaction.
Without public transparency, there is no public accountability.
Ronald Riley, a native of Johnstown, is a retired accountant with 23 years of experience in health-care finance, including 18 years at Lee Hospital in Johnstown, where he was assistant controller. He has lived in Indiana, Pa., for 11 years.