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County Group Braces for Lasting Effects of Coronavirus Outbreak

The National Association of Counties briefed reporters Wednesday on the needs and demands placed on county governments around the nation as they respond to the evolving new coronavirus crisis.

by / March 18, 2020

County governments are on the front lines of addressing the ongoing novel coronavirus crisis, and officials stress that the demands on government are only beginning.

From coast to coast, governments of all sizes have started to drastically reduce in-person services, opting for online offerings staffed by remote workers. Non-essential government functions have been shuttered in many cases.

“This is an all-consuming, all-government effort. There is not an agency in our government that is not engaged, in some way, in working to contain this virus, and respond to its impact,” said Steve Bellone, a county executive in Suffolk County, N.Y., in comments Wednesday in a conference call with reporters, called by the National Association of Counties (NACo).

Suffolk County includes the Long Island area in the New York City Metro region and has some 1.5 million residents. The county employs about 9,000 workers. 

The nation’s 1,900 county public health departments spend and estimated $38 billion annually on community health systems and support nearly 1,000 hospitals.

County officials stress they are an integral link to providing support during the COVID-19 outbreak and are charged with managing its control, which can include transforming motels and recreational vehicles to be used as emergency quarantine facilities and building cross-jurisdictional partnerships, said Mary Ann Borgeson, NACo president and a county commissioner in Douglas County, Neb.

“Right now we are just basically rapidly disseminating factual and timely updates to our public, while trying to pursue a containment strategy,” she added.

Officials signaled to federal partners the need for assistance both in the immediate and long-term future, saying that clear guidance would be needed from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) regarding mitigation, response and recovery activities.

“Our counties will require much more federal assistance to assure obligations to the health and well-being of our residents and assist with recovery efforts,” said Borgeson.

Matthew Chase, executive director of NACo, reminded listeners of at least a decade of pervasive cuts to county health needs, despite an expanding economy. He explained that many state and local health agencies have seen staff reductions of more than 75 percent in recent years.

“Even prior to this pandemic, county governments were facing unprecedented demands on our social safety net,” said Chase. “We were seeing, even with a strong national economy, modest GDP growth, decent wage growth, we were still seeing all kinds of demands on our services: public health, substance abuse, homelessness, child and elderly protective services, housing affordability.”

Counties, like King County in Washington, one of the centers of a large number of coronavirus cases, are shouldering millions of dollars in added costs. King County, home to Seattle, is expected to spend close to $100 million on coronavirus response, said Eric Johnson, executive director for the Washington State Association of Counties, in his comments during the call.

“A small rural county with 70,000 people is already telling us that they expect to spend $1 million over the next several weeks,” he remarked. “This is going to drain a lot of local resources because it is so significantly labor intensive. And we are committed to that.”

Counties also have to prepare for what comes next, said officials, calling to mind declining tax revenue related to a global economic slowdown. In the case of regional transit operations, declining ridership in the wake of the viral pandemic stands to suffer a huge hit at the farebox.

"As you look longer term, for counties, what we are really also having to focus on is cash flow and liquidity. Making sure that counties actually have the cash flow available for immediate outlays as they deal with the surge,” said Chase. “We also have rules around pension obligations. And as the markets have really suffered, so have the actuarial tables for out pension obligations.”

The economic impacts promise to be extensive, officials said, noting that layoffs and the like would further stress county services and budgets. 

“We’re beginning already to see the layoffs happening in California,” said Nick Macchione, director and deputy chief administrative officer of the San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency. “And so, these are individuals that will need food assistance, health care, mental health [care] because of the stress this is causing.

“We are dealing appropriately for the immediate response,” he added. “But we’re also thinking about how that will come possibly in the 18 or 24 months that follow.”

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Skip Descant Staff Writer

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.

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