HARRISBURG – At a Senate hearing today, some of the state’s leading medical experts and county leaders outlined plans and objectives to protect Pennsylvania’s vulnerable senior populations as counties begin to safely reopen following the governor’s COVID-19 shutdown.
The Senate Local Government Committee, chaired by Senator Scott Martin (R-13), and the Senate Aging and Youth Committee, chaired by Senator Judy Ward (R-30), heard testimony from four county commissioners and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s (UPMC) Chief Medical and Scientific Officer and Chair of Emergency Medicine.
“Last week we heard testimony from those hardest hit in the state by the coronavirus—the elderly in our nursing homes and long term care facilities,” Ward said. “Knowing who is the most vulnerable to the virus will help us take a more targeted approach to keeping people safe.”
“Counties have an essential role in protecting our most vulnerable citizens,” Martin said. “As we look to the future, we must all work together and share best practices to ensure a safe opening for all Pennsylvanians.”
UPMC Chief Medical and Scientific Officer Dr. Steven Shapiro spoke about the low level of risk of more serious outbreaks as the state begins to reopen.
“In areas where the community prevalence is low, we think we can keep it low. It isn’t an accident that Pittsburgh and Allegheny County and our regions have had low case rates. We’re not New York. We’re not Philadelphia. We certainly don’t have the density with the potential for an outbreak like that,” Shapiro said. “Because we started social isolation early, we developed our own test and we had very good infection control, we can go out and identify the cases early and prevent the clusters from rising and leading to larger outbreaks.”
“Treatments aren’t coming overnight. There really is no need to wait any further,” Shapiro said.
He also cautioned that how cases are counted will make a difference in determining when it is safe for communities to reopen: “I would separate community prevalence from congregate setting prevalence because we would handle those in different ways.”
Both representatives from UPMC also testified about the importance of protecting the state’s most medically vulnerable populations.
“We know the elderly, sick and poor pay the heaviest price for COVID 19 illness,” said UPMC Chair of Emergency Medicine Dr. Donald Yealy. “We can guide the next steps in acclimatizing to a virus that will be here for months to years by protecting the most vulnerable, particularly the elderly. We know how to do that.”
“The lesson learned in this is that proximity and density are important risk factors for infection. But harm happens mostly in vulnerable populations, especially the elderly. We can’t eradicate the virus quickly. If we focus on the elderly, we will bring a death rate – which is approximately 1 percent right now – to fractions of that,” Yealy said.
The medical experts also said that extended self-isolation of all non-vulnerable populations can lead to depression, anxiety and mental health issues, particularly coupled with disastrous economic impact of shutting down the state.
“Our psychiatry department is starting to see more cases related to patients who are suffering from the effects of isolation and loneliness. This is before the much larger effects of economic devastation started to take its hold as well,” Shapiro said.
Venango County Commissioner Albert “Chip” Abramovic expressed confidence that business owners would be responsible in opening in a way that protects customers and employees.
“We are very, very fortunate in Venango County to be a yellow county, and our business owners and residents have not taken that lightly,” Abramovic said. “Our business owners have taken unbelievable precautions to protect the patrons they take care of. I have learned through all of this that our local business owners and our small business owners uphold the safety and protections of their patrons more than anything.”
County leaders from throughout the state testified about the difficulties in getting timely data and communications from the Wolf Administration and the Department of Health, as well as having no clear path to fully reopening.
“Sitting and waiting to hear from higher levels of government while our residents sit at home battling depression, struggling to pay their bills, fighting to sign up for unemployment for the first time in their lives, and just wondering how they’re going to survive with no real plan for how they’re going to get back to work? That just doesn’t cut it for us,” said Snyder County Board of Commissioners Chairman Joseph Kantz.
“I have talked to many medical folks within our county and in neighboring counties, and they feel that the cases should not be the only model we’re using,” said Dauphin County Board of Commissioners Chairman Jeff Haste. “We still have great capacity here in Dauphin County. We also are somewhat frustrated with the lack of clear direction and good communication coming from the Administration.”
“We as a county are getting communications by press releases and emails,” Haste added.
“We found out about our first case an hour and a half before it was publicly announced. We get our data from press releases like the general public,” Abramovic said. “We have zero idea the future, the possibility, and when we potentially might go green, and what green looks like. That’s why we, as commissioners, are pleading our case to do this together and be at the table.”
Many of the commissioners also cited the economic devastation caused by the governor’s shutdown order as a reason for needing to open safely as soon as possible.
“We are starting to see the side effects. Our local representative told a story just the other day about how a lady in Washington County had to decide whether she wanted to pay rent or feed her kids. She ended up eating dog food that night. That’s where we are today because of this,” said Beaver County Board of Commissioners Chairman Daniel Camp. “We are getting hundreds of emails, text messages, phone calls from these business owners who are on the brink of closing down. We have a business yesterday after 35 years that is closing down. This is somebody who built family-sustaining jobs and paid in the unemployment system for 35 years and their employees still aren’t getting any unemployment since March.”
“The virus doesn’t really respect county boundaries. It doesn’t really care whether you’re in Chester County, or Delaware County, or Montgomery County,” said Delaware County Council Chairman Brian Zidek. “Many citizens are clamoring for restrictions to be eased, I sympathize with those citizens. I run a number of small businesses myself and I understand the pressures that one feels to meet payroll obligations, pay rent, and be there for a customer base that may be dwindling.”
Camp spoke about the problem of Beaver County being stuck in the red phase of reopening based almost entirely on cases in a single nursing home, and the severe problems that is causing his community.
“Beaver County is the only southwestern county labeled red surrounded by a sea of counties labeled yellow. This unwarranted and irrational decision is contrary to the common sense approach. Placing Beaver County and its small business on some exiled economic island is a recipe for financial disaster,” Camp said.
Video and other materials from the hearing will be available here.
CONTACT: Terry Trego (717) 787-6535 (Senator Martin)
Cheryl Schriner (717) 787-5490 (Senator Ward)