Delaware County’s new health director Melissa Lyon is leading the charge on promoting public health in the county and expects great things to happen with the new health department.
For now, she’s asking residents to be patient while the infrastructure is put in place.
“I have a lot of listening and I have a lot of learning to do so I ask for their patience,” Lyon said.
The good news is Delaware County’s new health department will truly be state-of-the-art.
“I can come to Delaware County and help the county develop a public health department that can be designed to basically serve 21st-century health issues. It’s a rare and exciting opportunity. Really, I’m honored.” Lyon said.
She has been in public health for 20 years.
Lyon was Public Health Director for eight years at the Erie County Health Department and was the COVID-19 Response Incident Commander there.
She is a graduate of the State University of New York (SUNY) at Fredonia, earning a bachelor’s degree in Biology, and Kaplan University, where she earned a master’s degree in Public Health.
A status report
Delaware County’s application to the Pennsylvania Health Department will move forward in December. Once approval is given, the new department will put things in place for environmental and community health services as it works toward getting accredited.
The department is hiring a director of community health services, a director of environmental services, and an epidemiologist.
To receive the state’s Act 315 funding, it will need to set up fundamental public health services.
That means services like licensing and permitting, food inspections for restaurants and food trucks, vector disease control, and education and prevention services in lead poisoning, sexually transmitted disease, tuberculosis, and infectious diseases.
“I think the community will begin to see in the first quarter or so how we begin to have a real local lens on the health issues in Delaware County,” Lyon said.
The department will seek feedback from the community about their concerns.
“That’s where the exciting work will happen as we engage the community, start to prioritize the work we want to do, and then operationalize it and set our outcomes,” Lyon said.
It will also be communicating with and educating the community about health issues like West Nile Virus, mosquito control, and Lyme Disease.
One of its largest goals is to be a visible presence and to generate trust with residents.
“I don’t want us to be invisible. I want us to be seen that we are a visible valuable community entity,” Lyon said.
The support is there
There’s a political appetite for a health department in Delaware County and a willingness to fund it, partially with funds from the American Rescue Plan.
Already, even without a health department, Delaware County has one of the highest COVID vaccination rates in the Commonwealth.
“You should be very proud of that work. That demonstrates there’s a desire by the community as well, so there’s lots of great things happening in Delco already.”
Lyon sees health equity, with everyone having access to their most optimal health and well-being, as a strong priority for the new department.
“Public health departments don’t necessarily provide individual personal health. When public health departments are well-functioning, they do their work in what is called the population health level.”
Take pre-natal care. There are moms of a particular socio-economic status who have less access to prenatal care. The health department won’t provide them the care but will look at ways the community can remove barriers so they can receive care, Lyon explained.
A health department in the county will mean getting access to COVID data in real-time or on a daily basis that can be analyzed locally. It can then be part of the real decision-making that needs to happen, she said.
How she came to public health
With a degree in biology, Lyon was spending a lot of time in laboratories working in immune diagnostics, testing kits and supplies for infectious diseases.
“But I was sort of in that point in my life where I decided to make a pivot and take a chance.”
She joined the U.S. Peace Corps, working in Cameroon, West Africa in communities that lacked fundamental infrastructures that prevented infectious and communicable diseases.
That’s where her passion for public health really emerged.
She returned to the United States and landed a job at the public health department in New York where her interest in public health continued to grow.
“I love the concept of prevention, and the job of a public health department is to prevent injury, illness, disease, and premature death and we do that by protecting the environment, promoting good health, and preventing diseases,” she said. “It’s an easy mission for me to get around and I’m passionate about it. I do love the work.”