Loudoun, Prince William counties seek to break from state-run health districts

Among the lessons learned from the coronavirus pandemic is that if a county is large and sufficiently organized to operate its own health department, things could get done more quickly in a public health crisis.

That’s why Loudoun and Prince William counties — two of Virginia’s fastest-growing counties in terms of population — hope Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam will sign a bill authorizing them to establish their own independent health departments, rather than continuing to rely upon the state-run health districts employed in most of the state.

Why would counties prefer to run their own health departments?

The state-run districts add another step to the process, Loudoun County Board of Supervisors Chair Phyllis Randall told WTOP.

“If (current Loudoun County Health Director David) Goodfriend chooses to do something in regards to testing, or whatever needs to be done, it has to be a directive from the state health department,” she said.

“We don’t feel that a county as large as Loudoun — or for that matter, Prince William County — should have to wait another step to get permission to do whatever we think is the best thing for our constituents, if necessary,” Randall said. “It’s a smoother, cleaner way to distribute services to the constituents.”

Randall said Virginia has continued to offer assistance in staffing “a large kind of FEMA health department site” for mass vaccinations.

“In Loudoun, we keep saying, ‘Thank you, but no thank you,'” said Randall. “We can do up to 7,500 shots a day — what we need is the vaccine.”

In neighboring Prince William County, Board of County Supervisors Chair Ann Wheeler said her county’s health department “was not robust when the pandemic started.”

“We’re one of the locations in the Commonwealth that the state is coming in and actually doing a mass vaccination site, down at the old Gander Mountain site, near Potomac Mills,” she said.

Wheeler said a county-run health department would provide the ability to target communities during a public health crisis.

Recently, the county said that while white residents only represent 41% of the county’s population, 54% of the vaccines given so far have gone to white people. Latinos have received 17% of the county’s allotment and 13% of shots have gone to Black residents.

Under the current arrangement, health districts are generally staffed by a mix of state and local employees. Typically, county employees make more than the state health workers, which often results in difficulty in retaining workers.

“As of right now, our health department has a 27% vacancy rate, the highest in Northern Virginia,” Wheeler said. “We think, as a county, we might be able to do it (better) because we have more resources than the health department, at the moment.”

If Northam signs the bill, introduced by State Sen. Barbara Favola of Arlington, by its March 31 deadline, Loudoun and Prince William would join Fairfax and Arlington counties as the only four jurisdictions in the state to control their own health departments.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted a number of challenges with public health infrastructure across the country, and in Virginia we aren’t waiting for the next crisis to take action,” said Northam spokesperson Alena Yarmosky told WTOP. “Governor Northam is still in the process of reviewing [the bill], but he certainly supports efforts to improve the this infrastructure and increase funding for public health.”

“One of the major challenges has been an outdated funding formula for local health districts that hasn’t been changed in a generation,” Yarmosky said. Northam signed a number of bills Friday, including one to modernize local health department funding.

Fairfax established its own department in 1995 and Arlington took control in 1988.

Favola’s SB 1221, which passed easily through the state Senate and House, specified Loudoun,  solely — but Randall said that after speaking with Wheeler, she asked Northam to amend the bill so it includes Prince William County.

“We have no objection at all to having Prince William County’s name added,” Randall said. “We have communicated to the governor, to the state health department and to all the staffs that we are in support of the governor amending the bill and including Prince William County.”

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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