Pottstown Mercury: Montgomery County hires new health director; contact tracing program takes shape
by Carl Hessler, Jr.
May 22, 2020
EAGLEVILLE — As week 11 of the COVID-19 outbreak in Montgomery County came to a close, officials announced a Souderton woman will take over as interim administrator of the Office of Public Health, and they announced partnerships with community groups that will get a contact tracing program off the ground.
Janet Panning is the new interim administrator of the county Office of Public Health, an appointment that was approved this week by the county commissioners and the board of health and on Friday by Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine.
Panning replaces Dr. Brenda K. Weis, who was the face of the Office of Public Health and stood beside the commissioners during daily news briefings since the virus surfaced on March 7, and whose resignation was accepted on Thursday by the commissioners acting as the county salary board.
“It will be a very seamless transition. Janet’s been involved in many of the activities, just as we all have over the last 11 weeks, in our county’s response to COVID-19 and we don’t think we’ll miss a beat,” county Commissioners’ Chairwoman Dr. Valerie Arkoosh said during a daily news briefing on Friday.
While Panning will serve as interim administrator, officials said they do intend to advertise a vacancy for the position.
According to her resume, Panning, who will be paid a salary of $84,561, has been employed by the county Office of Public Health since 2017.
Prior to her promotion this week, Panning, who holds degrees from Michigan State University and Chestnut Hill College and who has a background in psychology, counseling and social welfare, was a supervisor for maternal child health, which included overseeing the county’s nurse home visiting program and collaborative work to reduce infant mortality.
Weis, who earned a salary of $135,603, had been the county’s public health director since March 2018.
Arkoosh explained Weis wanted to be closer to her daughters and has accepted a position in another state where her daughters reside.
“We will miss Dr. Weis and certainly wish her the best,” Arkoosh said.
The administrator of the county Office of Public Health oversees the office’s clinical, communicable, environmental and water divisions, essentially coordinating public health nursing, emergency public health preparedness and environmental and water quality services. The administrator oversees a staff of about 115 full- and part-time employees.
Providing an update on the county’s development of a widespread contact tracing program, Arkoosh said the Office of Public Health is partnering with four nonprofit organizations, ACLAMO, Family Services of Montgomery County, Visiting Nurses Association Community Services, and Montgomery County OIC, which will “employ highly trained and skilled contact tracers to help stop the spread of COVID-19 in our community.”
Contact tracing involves identifying those with whom an infected person has been in close contact so they can self-quarantine to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Arkoosh said the four organizations have “a long history of working with county residents of all ages, races and backgrounds.” Each organization will have one supervisor and between five and 10 contact tracers.
“Long before COVID-19, these four organizations have been working with Montgomery County residents on the ground level. Their staffs are caring and compassionate professionals and they have extensive experience in working with county residents during difficult times,” Arkoosh said.
“Through COVID-19 contact tracing they will not only help stop the spread of disease but will also ensure that those individuals and families who are impacted will get the support and services they need to stay safe and healthy,” Arkoosh said. “These organizations are fully equipped to reach our many diverse communities throughout the county and they will play a vital role in our fight against COVID-19.”
County health officials conducted contact tracing in the early days of the pandemic in March when the first few cases of the virus were identified, but tracing was discontinued when community spread became evident and the number of positive cases surged.
Meanwhile, on Friday, officials reported eight more COVID-19 deaths in the county. The eight deaths included individuals who ranged in age from 66 to 95 and the deaths bring the county’s death toll to 566 since March 7, when the first two cases of the virus were identified in the county, said Arkoosh, who was joined at the news briefing by fellow commissioners Kenneth E. Lawrence Jr. and Joseph C. Gale and Dr. Alvin Wang, regional EMS medical director.
To date, 309 females and 257 males have died from the virus in the county.
Officials added that 497 of the total 566 deaths were individuals who resided in long-term care facilities, representing about 88 percent of the total deaths.
The 566 total deaths were “confirmed positive” COVID-19 cases through the use of lab tests.
Officials said another 185 deaths in the county have been listed as “probable” COVID-19 deaths. Those are deaths that list COVID-19 as a cause of death on a death certificate but in which there was no laboratory confirmation of the virus.
Additionally, officials reported a total of 105 new positive cases of the virus on Friday, bringing the county’s total number of cases to 6,312 since March 7. Officials said 23 of the latest individuals to test positive resided in long-term care facilities in the county while the majority of the cases, 82, are other members in the community.
The new positive cases included 58 males and 47 females who ranged in age from 2 to 95 and they lived in 33 municipalities. Eight of the individuals are known to be hospitalized.
Community-based testing opportunities for the virus are available in Pottstown, Whitpain and Norristown.
The latest walkup testing site opened in Pottstown on Thursday at the county’s Office of Public Health Pottstown Health Center at 364 King St. Testing is available Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. by appointment only. To make an appointment, residents should call 610-970-2937 beginning at 8:30 a.m. daily. The site will be closed on Memorial Day.
A drive-thru site at the central campus of the Montgomery County Community College in Whitpain is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily as testing supplies allow. Registration for each day’s appointments will open at 8 a.m. daily and will remain open until all available spots are filled. Individuals can register online at www.montcopa.org/COVID-19
Individuals who do not have access to the internet or do not have an email address can call 610-631-3000 to register for a testing appointment. The Whitpain site will be closed on Sunday and on Memorial Day.
Between April 16 and May 19, the drive-thru site tested 6,532 individuals. To date, officials have received results for 6,167 individuals, 870 of whom tested positive for the virus. Officials said that comes out to about a 14 percent positive rate, which is a reduction from the highest 24 percent positive rate that was recorded around April 5.
A walk-up community-based testing site for Norristown residents is located on the parking lot of the Delaware Valley Community Health Norristown Regional Health Center, 1401 DeKalb St. The free testing is provided by appointment only from 11 a.m. until 1 p.m. Monday through Friday. The site will be closed on Memorial Day.
In addition to being available to test Norristown residents, the site also offers tests to all established patients of the Delaware Valley Community Health Center regardless of where they reside, officials said. Residents can register for testing by calling 610-592-0680 starting at 8:30 a.m. daily.