County officials — on the front line of the virus outbreak — make plea to federal government

Photo from Suffolk county executive Steve Bellone’s Twitter
County executives such as Steve Bellone, at left, have been working around the clock to fight the coronavirus outbreak and help local communities. They are now asking for more help from the federal government.

On Wednesday, March 18, county executives from New York and across the country discussed their needs as the COVID-19 outbreak became more widespread.

During a phone conference held by the National Association of Counties (NACo), county leaders from New York, Washington, California and Nebraska called for more help from the federal government.

In recent weeks, counties have been working as best as they can with state and federal governments to produce community-based responses that make sense to each county individually. But clearer guidelines and more resources from the federal government would allow local governments to move forward appropriately as the virus worsens.

On March 17, NACo sent a letter to congressional leadership asking for federal help and for legislation to be passed quickly.

Both George Latimer, Westchester County executive, and Steve Bellone, Suffolk County executive lead two of the most affected counties in New York. During the conference call they pressed for more testing equipment, protective gear, quicker responses to questions and clarification on other issues, relief from some mandates, flexibility on elections and hiring procedures, and other resources that would allow them to manage the front lines of the outbreak.

“The last 48 hours Suffolk County had three deaths,” Bellone said. “This is a reminder that this global pandemic is about saving lives and reducing the spread of the virus that we know will result in death.”

To help put things into perspective, Bellone stated that last Sunday Suffolk County had one case and by Wednesday, March 18, there were 159 confirmed cases.

Suffolk County will be opening its own mobile testing site today at Stony Brook University. They have also instilled a 24/7 call center for coronavirus-related questions, which has already received over thousands of calls.

In an effort to protect the health of first responders, the county has been working with Smart911 so residents can inform them if anyone in the household might have the virus.

In Westchester, there have been more than 3,000 tests, some by Northwell Health’s new pop-up testing facility.

“The more we test, the more people will be isolated,” Latimer said. “We are trying to find sites to do this: closed hotels, abandoned hospitals, etc.”

Latimer wants “quick, decisive action” from governments on all levels.

NACo is asking legislation to deploy even more testing to America’s counties because without adequate testing there is a “false sense of security in states and counties where there are currently no reported cases,” according to their letter to congress. They are also asking for access and distribution of personal protective equipment for medical staff and health care professionals.

Mary Ann Borgeson, NACo President and commissioner for Douglas county, Nebraska, raised concerns regarding the need for better guidance from FEMA; the need for supplemental funding from the federal government; and the importance of the relationship between local, state and federal government at this time.

“We need more investment and quick action to get money down to the local level,” echoed Matthew Chase, the executive director of NACo. “We need money for surge capacity and to help with triage facilities.”

On March 13, President Trump directed FEMA support to help with COVID-19, specifically focusing on the Stafford Act. Because the Stafford Act was built for disaster relief and not a “public health pandemic,” it leaves county leaders with insufficient guidance during this time.

FEMA has the largest funding available right now with $42 billion available. The letter states, “Congress must clarify that counties’ public health emergency response activity are eligible for Public Assistance Program funding and reimbursement.” Without this clarified, counties might not delegate resources properly.

San Diego County Executive Nick Macchione and the Executive Director of the Washington State Association of Counties, Eric Johnson, were also on the phone conference. Each county executive mentioned the closure of schools in their area.

The shutdown of schools across the nation and individuals working from home is why NACo is also asking for increased broadband access. This would allow more people to stay connected who otherwise wouldn’t have the option. One suggestion they include is “encouraging school busses equipped with public Wi-Fi capabilities to be parked in areas to expand the connectivity footprint for residents in communities unable to travel the distances to other public hotspots.”

Those who were on the phone conference call repeated that through strong federal and local partnership, the United States will be able to get through this.