Pa.’s top health official stresses importance of protecting people living in nursing homes

Coronavirus infection total reaches nearly 3,400 statewide; 38 COVID-19 deaths reported so far

  • Emily Previti/PA Post
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Four more Pennsylvanians have died from COVID-19 complications, including the first residents of Bucks and Lawrence counties, the second in Lancaster County and third in Monroe County.

Another 643 new positive test results — including the first in Venango and Mifflin counties — were reported Saturday, bringing Pennsylvania’s total number cases to nearly 3,400 in 58 counties, state Health Secretary Rachel Levine said.

Sixty-four of the state’s coronavirus cases – just under 2 percent – are tied to 36 nursing homes primarily located in the state’s densely populated southeast region where cases have been concentrated, Dr. Levine said.

“[T]hat’s less than.01 percent of the state’s nursing home population,” Levine said.

Levine, whose own mother lives in a personal care home, urged Pennsylvanians with loved ones in long-term care facilities to refrain from visiting those who aren’t in end of life situations. Instead, she urged people to stay connected with phone calls or video chat or by sending letters or cards.

Many facilities had already started restricting visitors before state and federal guidelines were issued instructing them to do so a few weeks ago.

“I know this is hard. We are seeing community spread of this virus in most areas of Pennsylvania. And we need to make sure that our loved ones in nursing homes stay safe. And that is why actually I am not able to visit my mother, either,” Levine said. “But I call – twice a day.”

As with the rest of the state’s population, nursing home staff have been told to say home if they have symptoms, she said.

“If they come to work and they’re having symptoms, … they will not be admitted into the nursing home and then … ask[ed] to get evaluated and tested,” Levine said.

DOH officials later declined to specify whether a significant share of cases are tied to certain facilities, nor would they say whether the cases include staff.

“The Disease [Prevention and Control] Act limits information being released to only what is necessary to protect the health and well-being of Pennsylvanians. We will not be releasing information, like occupations, at this time,” they wrote in an email.

 

The Department of Economic and Community Development is expected to offer more detailed guidance for all Pennsylvania employers on Monday, Levine said.

Levine spoke Sunday afternoon shortly after Gov. Tom Wolf announced that he is seeking a “major disaster” declaration from the Trump administration.

The additional aid that would follow such a declaration would go toward unemployment assistance, crisis counseling, community disaster loans and expanded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits (i.e., food stamps), according to a letter Wolf sent Saturday to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

All 67 of the commonwealth’s counties and major cities had issued emergency declarations as of Friday, according to Wolf’s letter to FEMA.

Elk, Fulton, Forest, Bedford, Clinton, Union, Wyoming, Sullivan and Jefferson counties haven’t reported any positive test results yet.

Some public officials from rural areas believe the numbers are low because tests aren’t available.

Levine said officials “know we have an undercount in Pennsylvania and throughout the nation” and expect lower numbers from less densely populated areas, but acknowledged the limited access to testing.

Former Franklin County Commissioner Bob Thomas says the state should include data on COVID-19 testing at the county level as part of its daily update.

“It’s as critical as the per county reports [on positive results and deaths] we get now,” Thomas said.

DOH again invoked the state Disease Prevention and Control Act when asked later about plans to release more detailed testing and case metrics.

In northeast Pennsylvania, concerns have grown about expanding testing and a potential surge of COVID-19 cases in the region bordering virus hotpots in New York and New Jersey.

“We certainly will be working with the hospitals and health systems in the area, about having testing sites and being able to handle the increased number of cases,” Levine said.

But ultimately, it’s the federal government’s call whether to open mass testing sites – like the two in Philadelphia and Montgomery County – in NEPA, she said.

The state Department of Corrections announced Sunday afternoon the first inmate to test positive for the coronavirus at SCI – Phoenix in Montgomery County.

That facility, which opened less than two years ago, has “special isolation rooms in its infirmary to handle such cases,” according to a DOC statement.

Corrections officials say they have quarantined 250 other inmates determined to be at risk by contact tracing.

DOC also says it has provided protective masks to all inmates and staff, and been screening staff and new inmates for fever and other symptoms upon arrival at state prisons throughout the commonwealth.

 

Editor’s note: This post was updated to add the DOC’s announcement, county-level case details and the state Department of Health’s position on case metrics.

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