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Mass-Testing Bill Gets Thumbs Down From County Council Committee

90.5 WESA
An Allegheny County Council bill, sponsored by Democrats Bethany Hallam and Liv Bennett, would require the county to test all people who live and work at the county jail and Kane Community Living Centers to be tested for COVID-19.

An Allegheny County Council committee has decided not to back a bill that would mandate universal COVID-19 testing at the county jail and Kane Community Living Centers. Democrat Bethany Hallam introduced the legislation in May, given that people in group-living settings face a heightened risk of contracting the coronavirus.

But in a 4-2 vote Wednesday, council’s public safety committee suggested it would be better to leave the matter to jail and nursing home administrators, who said they follow guidance from public health agencies and medical professionals.

On Wednesday, the county reported there are no known, active cases of COVID-19 among Kane Center residentsor jail inmates.

Jail Warden Orlando Harper told committee members that there have been no new COVID-19 diagnoses since early May, though he said results were still pending Wednesday for five of the jail's more than 1,700 inmates. In all, he said, 107 inmates have been tested since mid-March, and 28 have been diagnosed with the disease. The jail’s website shows that all the inmates who have tested positive, as well as five of six jail employees, have recovered from the disease.

With cases rising at U.S. jails and prisons in recent weeks, however, the issue continues to spark debate. Wednesday’s meeting was no exception and featured some sharp exchanges between councilors.

At one point, for example, Democrat Bob Macey grew frustrated with the number of questions Hallam asked jail officials who spoke at the meeting. “I don’t know why she keeps pounding and keeps going on and on because other people may want to speak,” Macey said.

“I was speaking, so please do not interrupt me,” Hallam shot back, before Democrat Liv Bennett, who chairs the public safety committee and co-sponsored the mass-testing bill, told both councilors to “please stand down, calm down.”

Hallam, who once spent several months at the county jail on drug-related offenses, has been a vocal proponent of jail reform. And Macey seemed to allude to her past when he cast his vote. “I am thoroughly, thoroughly satisfied with the experts’ answers," he said. "And I mean experts. I’m not talking about somebody that has an axe to grind."

Hallam and Bennett had invited a public health expert to testify in support of the legislation Wednesday, but he did not dial into the meeting.

Democrat Paul Klein and Republicans Sam DeMarco and Cindy Kirk joined Macey in voting to send the mass-testing legislation back to the full 15-member council with a negative recommendation.

The vote came after mass testing had already gotten underway at all four Kane Center nursing homes. In fact, last week, Gov. Tom Wolf ordered skilled nursing facilities to test all staff and residents. And on Wednesday the Kane Centers’ executive director, Dennis Biondo, said that more than 2,600 tests have been administered to residents and staff at the facilities, with four employees being diagnosed with the disease despite exhibiting no symptoms.

Biondo said the entire process, which is nearing completion, would last between 10 and 14 days. He said it took “a couple days” simply to get the materials needed to conduct the tests.

“That is an issue in itself,” Biondo said. “Do you have enough resources? Do you have enough swabs? Do you have enough test kits from the lab?”

The Kane Center in Glen Hazel had emerged as a hot spot for the disease earlier in the spring, with 18 dying and another 60 testing positive. A resident at the Kane Center in McKeesport was also diagnosed but recovered. There have been no known cases at the Kane centers in Scott and Ross townships.

At the jail, meanwhile, Harper said, “We’re basing all of our decisions … on what the experts are saying in the medical field.”

Those experts advise that the jail only test those who show symptoms of COVID-19, Harper said. He said that guidance comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Pennsylvania Department of Health, Allegheny County Health Department, and Allegheny Health Network. Allegheny Health Network contracts with the jail to provide medical care to inmates.

The county’s chief epidemiologist, LuAnn Brink, told the county’s Jail Oversight Board last month that expanded testing at the jail would not help to contain the disease. She said with high turnover among inmates, any round of mass testing would provide only a snapshot of how extensively the disease has spread. Such a limited view could lead to complacency if it reveals few positive cases, Brink said.

But at the time, Hallam countered that the only way to track and contain the disease is to conduct regular, mass testing.