On Tuesday, county supervisors ended the COVID-19 testing requirement for county employees—another sign of the two-year pandemic emergency in county government falling away.
And with the county’s two-year state of emergency ended, masks coming off in many places and COVID-19 cases dropping, the people at the top of Loudoun County government looked back on two unprecedented years.
Starting in March 2020, for most people the novel coronavirus went from a scary news item to changing their way of life. That was also true of the county government, which in a matter of days found itself grappling with uncertainty about a deadly new virus, new restrictions on gathering in one place and public facilities closed by executive order. County government employees were set scrambling not only to provide their usual services safely, but to meet new needs like the early struggle to find personal protective equipment.
“We had to make a lot of changes to our organization to keep operations running,” County Administrator Tim Hemstreet said. “So, for example, we diverted a lot of procurement, finance, General Services and parks and libraries employees to address the purchase of PPE.”
The county set to work trying to find cleaning supplies and protective equipment not only for its own employees, but also for congregate living centers like retirement homes which housed some of the most vulnerable populations in relatively close quarters.
And it wasn’t the only way county employees adapted—the county continued to provide of its normal services while most employees were sent to work from home. Meanwhile, county workers at facilities closed by then-Gov. Ralph Northam’s executive orders shouldered new job such as acting as couriers for other employees working from home. Parks employees went to work delivering food through a greatly expanded meals program. The county opened up internet connection site to support students as they navigated distance learning. A new warehousing operation spun up to acquire and issue PPE, hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies.
“We kept people still doing work even though their main facility was closed by the governor. So we had a large operation like that so that people could still, if they were renovating a house, or they were trying to do something new with a business, they could still move forward and we could still get their plan sets reviewed,” Hemstreet said.
“If something was scaled back, we were ramped up in another area,” said Assistant County Administrator Erin McLellan. Across the board, she said, even with some facilities closed, county workers were putting in more hours. And even at that time the county already was planning for when employees would come back to the building.
“We were also remodeling many of our facilities in anticipation that eventually a lot of stuff would open up, but anticipating that we would have to open up in an environment that would still have COVID restrictions—So, remodeling work areas, installing Plexiglas barriers, going through and inventorying every single conference room so that we can limit the number of people in a conference room,” Hemstreet said.
Hemstreet’s staff began almost to operate two governments side-by-side: one doing the normal business of local government in an abnormal environment, and one dedicated to the pandemic response. And the pandemic both showcased the county’s planning and preparedness and had some real-world lessons for Loudoun’s sophisticated emergency operations.
“For many years, we’ve been doing regular tabletop exercise that are focused on these types of events—in fact I want to say either the fall of ‘19 or early in 2020 we actually did a tabletop exercise that was kind of similar,” Hemestreet said. “It was related to a potential chemical or biological attack, but the result was the need to do something very similar to what we did in terms of creating a distribution POD for medication, and having to isolate the population and things like that. So we had those types of pandemic plans in our emergency plan for many years.
“Now, of course, in reality, it didn’t occur exactly the way the plan assumed—the need for six feet of distance created a lot of obstacles that we had to work around. But definitely the mentality, the plan, was there.”
And like many offices, the pandemic likely has changed some things about the way the county government operates permanently.
“I think the biggest thing that we’ve all adjusted to is the fact that telework or alternate work sites, or people being able to work from home, is a lot easier or a lot more efficient than we would have thought pre-pandemic,” Hemstreet said. “In fact, we’re looking at adding that with a level of permanency for those more office-based employees that we have.”
Concurrently, as county staff members bore that burden, the county offered support such as bonus pay for people directly working in emergency operations and flexibility on accruing vacation days.
The pandemic also tested the connections between the county government and the charitable nonprofit community, which was also greatly tested and continues to feel the impacts of the pandemic. Hemstreet said the pandemic strengthened those partnerships in many ways, but also pointed out where there are weaknesses.
And he said it also was a test of the county’s ability to help hard-to-reach communities that don’t often show up at the county government center in Leesburg.
“There’s always some people that are always here, but when we have a pandemic that impacts all of Loudoun County, there’s also communities that don’t normally show up here,” Hemstreet said. “So one of things that we identified in the pandemic was the need to be able to reach everyone in every community, because COVID was going to impact them directly regardless of what the county government was doing.”
Today, mask and testing requirements have been mostly lifted, the weather is warming, and COVID-19-related deaths are low, but the way the county government operates has been permanently changed.
“I can’t stress enough just the quality of people that we have working here, and that goes from our customer service personnel, to our people that are out in the field, all the way up through senior management. The staff here really has a can-do attitude,” Hemstreet said. “Every problem that we faced, and certainly as leaders every problem that we faced, when we went to the employees and said, hey, we need to try to do this, they took it on. In many cases, the resolutions to problems and issues were designed by them. I didn’t sit in this office and make it all up—the staff really embraced their work for the community, and I can’t say enough about that. They’re the ones that dedicated to their jobs, wanted to serve the public and made it all happen.”