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Senators examine Pa.’s reopening plan and what lies ahead

“Is this the new normal in terms of what we’re going to do in terms of shutting down the economy?”

  • By Jan Murphy/PennLive
The American and Pennsylvania flags over the capitol building in Harrisburg on April 7, 2020. Gov. Tom Wolf ordered the state flag to fly at half staff to honor victims of the coronavirus outbreak.

 Courtesy Office of Gov. Wolf

The American and Pennsylvania flags over the capitol building in Harrisburg on April 7, 2020. Gov. Tom Wolf ordered the state flag to fly at half staff to honor victims of the coronavirus outbreak.

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» Red, yellow, green: What to expect in each of Pa.’s tiers for reopening

With Pennsylvania now on the path toward reopening its economy, a lot of questions weigh in the minds of state senators about what lies ahead in this ongoing battle against the coronavirus and how this reopening plan will work.

Members of the Senate Local Government and Health and Human Services committees on Monday began searching for answers at a joint hearing with representatives from Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration as well as some local and health care officials.

Wolf announced on Friday 24 northcentral and northwestern counties will move into the “yellow phase” of this three-tiered color-coded reopening plan, starting this Friday. Those counties will still be asked to exercise caution and continue their social distancing practices, among other restrictions.

Here are some highlights from the testimony that was offered at the hearing:

Is this the new normal? Sen. Scott Martin, R-Lancaster County, who chairs the local government committee, pointed out past outbreaks of flus have resulted in high case counts, hospitalizations and deaths. He pointed the state didn’t shut down for them and asked why is this virus different.

“Is this the new normal in terms of what we’re going to do in terms of shutting down the economy, shutting down elective procedures at hospitals to the point where they could collapse and not being able to provide services?” Martin asked a panel of local and health care officials.

Michael Ripchinski, chief clinical officer at Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health, replied that compared to other flus, COVID-19 is twice as contagious. In a population that doesn’t practice social distancing, wear masks and practice good hand hygiene, the “speed by which others can get infected and then get sick is a lot faster,” he said. Along with that, the virus’ effect on patients with other underlying health issues puts them more at risk for death.

Dr. Valerie Arkoosh, a Montgomery County commissioner, elaborated on Ripchinski’s statement. She said, “We have seen in this country in just two months more people killed than our decade-plus involvement in the Vietnam War so it just shows to what was just said, the infectivity of this virus and how quickly it can be deadly.”

She also urged senators not to get caught up in the narrative about the virus resulting in far fewer deaths than the 2 million originally forecasted in this country.

“That didn’t happen because this entire country shut down and practiced extreme social distancing,” Arkoosh said. “So it has been the collective action of people across this great country of ours that has kept the death toll where it is. I can guarantee you that if we just throw the doors open and head out about our business in the way we did two months ago, we will have a real problem on our hands in four to six weeks.”

Focus on long-term living facilities: Since state health secretary Dr. Rachel Levine acknowledged that most of the coronavirus infections that occur in nursing homes and personal care facilities are introduced by staff, Sen. Scott Hutchinson, R-Venango County, asked why isn’t there more of a targeted testing or quarantining response focused on their staff.

“Something should be done to say you are a conduit and we have to nip that conduit in the bud in both directions, both in and out,” Hutchinson said.

Levine said quarantining the staff would be challenging for several reasons. She cited their low pay and the staffing challenges those facilities already have. Plus, she said there are over 2,500 of those facilities across the state. “Quarantining all of those workers is an interesting thought,” she said.

As for testing, Levine said the staff is tested if they display symptoms of the virus. She said they talked about testing those employees once a week but the state doesn’t have the capacity to test them everyday at this point.

But she added: “We will consider all of those ideas.”

Bringing in the Pennsylvania National Guard: The state has called on citizen soldiers to provide assistance to nursing homes and long-term care facilities that have experienced staffing shortages due to outbreaks of the coronavirus.

David Padfield, director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, said the Guard’s role is to try to stabilize the situation in those facilities so that it doesn’t end up having an adverse impact on the health care system.

“Ultimately if we get to a point where we have to evacuate these homes, they are ultimately going to impact the greater health care system so that they will use a lot of beds,” Padfield said. “They will use a lot of other things in the health care system. So that’s a concern of ours. So the key is to try to stabilize that the best we can.”

Going yellow: Mercer County Commissioner Matt McConnell said on Wednesday morning that his county was still waiting on further guidance from the state about the resources being made available to counties that will move into the “yellow phase” of the governor’s reopening plan.

“Most of the information has been to a lesser extent than the detail I would have liked,” McConnell said.

For example, he said their Little League wanted to start its season. “We believe that to be probably ill advised but we’re not getting clear direction out of the state on those type of activities,” he said.

The Wolf Administration released some more guidance to the 24 counties entering this phase on Monday afternoon.

While he had some senators’ ear, McConnell used the opportunity to remind them when they hand down mandates without funding attached, it falls on the counties and “that’s where taxes will need to be raised.”

Preparing for a second wave: Responding to a question from Sen. Art Haywood, D-Philadelphia, Levine said many of the models forecasting virus spread anticipate a surge of new cases in the fall so they are trying to prepare for that.

Right now, she said personal protective equipment is hard to come by and what it does receive is going out to long-term care facilities and those hospitals “still very much affected in the red zone.”

“We do have a large number of n95 masks with two large shipments from the federal stockpile but they have told us at least right now not to expect surgical masks, not to expect gowns, and not to expect gloves. So the teams have been literally scouring Pennsylvania, the nation and the Earth to try to get those PPE equipment,” Levine said. “Hopefully, it things are quieter in the summer we’ll be able to stockpile.”

Levine said the governor has challenged his team with the aspirational goal of moving toward population-based mass testing this fall. Right now, that is not possible. Along with expanded antibody testing, she said they are working to develop robust contact tracing of positive COVID-19 cases “to try to prevent the type of mass community spread that we saw in the spring.”

What areas will open up next: Community and Economic Development Secretary Dennis Davin said the administration is looking at regions of the state as it decides which counties will be the next to start to reopen.

He said some counties in a region may not be able to open up but perhaps counties close to region could. Wolf said on Friday when announcing the initial 24 counties that will start to reopen, that he would be looking at counties in the southwest and southcentral parts of the state next.

But when it comes to the southeastern portion of the state, Levine said the governor has indicated he would be looking at that region in a more global way as opposed to individual counties.

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