Here’s what Pa. hospital leaders say about masks, business closures and new public health measures

There is “universal support” overall, but some disagreement on specifics.

  • Brett Sholtis/Transforming Health

(Harrisburg) — Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s public health order intended to slow the spread of coronavirus went into effect Saturday, at a time when some hospitals say their intensive care units are full.

The order includes a ban on indoor dining at restaurants, capacity restrictions for businesses, limits on gatherings and the temporary closure of some entertainment venues.

It’s drawn swift criticism from some state Republicans in the general assembly. State House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff represents parts of Centre County and Mifflin County, which presently has the highest COVID-19 incidence rate in the state. Benninghoff released a statement saying the measures would “devastate lives and livelihoods” and would “not create personal responsibility.”

“I recognize we are facing a serious resurgence of COVID-19 and our health care systems are struggling to keep up with the increased demand; however, job-crushing, harmful government mandates are not the answer,” Benninghoff wrote. “Canceling Christmas is not the answer.

“Instead, I appeal to each person in this Commonwealth to follow common sense and listen to the advice of health care professionals to protect friends, loved ones, those in our communities who are most vulnerable, and those on the front lines of this pandemic.”

Benninghoff did not respond to multiple requests for an interview to clarify which public health measures he thinks people should follow. Andy Carter, president and CEO of Hospital and Health System Association of Pennsylvania, said health care professionals all support the governor’s message.

“The hospital community universally supports the governor and the health secretary in their call for mask wearing, social distancing, avoiding large groups, and unnecessary travel,” as well as washing hands and getting a flu shot, said Carter, whose group represents more than 240 health care providers in the Commonwealth.

Regarding Wolf’s orders, there is some disagreement “within the hospital community on the thresholds and the best timing for any additional mitigation efforts,” Carter added. However, while hospital leaders might not all agree on specific mitigation measures, there is no question among top health care leaders about the efficacy of widely-used public health measures such as universal mask-wearing or practicing physical distancing.

Some health systems voiced support for the new measures.

Penn State Health spokeswoman Barbara Schindo said hospital leaders hope they “will stem the tide of infections and enable health care systems to better manage the ongoing crisis in our region while we keep caring for all of our patients — those with COVID and those facing other challenges to their health.

“In the meantime, we encourage every citizen of our Commonwealth to wear a mask, wash your hands and follow social distancing guidelines,” Schindo said in an email. “There is perhaps no greater gift we can give to each other during this uncertain time.”

Temple University Health System released a statement thanking the governor and the health secretary.

“We know that wearing masks and social distancing are effective in curbing the spread of COVID-19,” the statement reads. “We encourage everyone to take these and other preventive measures to protect their own health, the health of frontline workers, and the health of everyone in their community.”

A man rides a bicycle past Temple University Hospital, Friday, Dec. 4, 2020, in Philadelphia. Hospital beds are filling up and medical staffs are being stretched to the limit as Pennsylvania's health care system copes with a growing number of seriously ill COVID-19 patients.

Matt Slocum / AP Photo

A man rides a bicycle past Temple University Hospital, Friday, Dec. 4, 2020, in Philadelphia. Hospital beds are filling up and medical staffs are being stretched to the limit as Pennsylvania’s health care system copes with a growing number of seriously ill COVID-19 patients.

Geisinger health system was quick to warn people about the risk of ICUs filling up, especially at hospitals in rural areas where there are fewer beds and case rates are higher than average. CEO Dr. Jaewon Ryu said the temporary measures will help to keep beds open in ICUs.

The measures also garnered support from health care groups such as the Pennsylvania Health Access Network, Healthcare Pennsylvania, and the Pennsylvania Health Law Project, where executive director Laval Miller-Wilson said the state is at “a critical point.”

“The holiday season — with colder weather, more indoor gatherings and families traveling — is a virus’ friend,” Miller-Wilson wrote. “Following science-based public health measures and guidelines must be our focus now and in the weeks to come.”

Some health systems stopped short of commenting on the recent measures. York County-based WellSpan Health provided this statement: “As we continue to respond to a steep increase in patients requiring treatment for COVID-19, now is the time to slow the spread of the virus — before it overwhelms our healthcare heroes, and we aren’t able to fulfill our mission to the community. Before our hospitals can’t care for one more person: Wear a mask. Wash your hands. Stand six feet away from others.”

University of Pittsburgh Medical Center declined to provide a comment.

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