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State Health Secretary Confirms ‘We’ll Be Looking At The Southwest’

Commonwealth of Pennsylvania
Rachel Levine, the state's top health official

Rachel Levine, who heads the state Department of Health, said Saturday that counties in southwestern Pennsylvania were a priority for efforts to reopen the state amid the COVID-19 pandemic. But she didn’t specifically endorse a two-week timeline suggested by Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald on Friday. And she pushed back on suggestions that the state’s communication on reopening policy had been unclear.

Gov. Tom Wolf announced Friday that some COVID-19 restrictions would be eased in two-dozen northern Pennsylvania counties, effective May 8. He said that areas in southwestern Pennsylvania were being reviewed for similar relief: Fitzgerald said he hoped an announcement could come as soon as next Friday, with easing going into effect May 15.

Asked about the timeline during a press call Saturday, Levine said, didn't commit to the May 15 date.

“We’re going to be looking at that now. We’re going to be looking at all of our data [and] looking to see if there are any changes this week in terms of case rates” and other metrics. “The governor said yesterday that he was looking at the southwest, and so we’ll be looking at the southwest. I don’t have a specific date, however. “

The number of new cases of COVID-19 reported in Allegheny County has been well below a state-required ceiling of roughly 43 cases per day among its 1.2 million people. Other nearby counties are also well below the state’s per-capita limit. Asked Friday why those counties weren’t among the where restrictions would be eased, Levine cited population density in Allegheny County – a consideration Fitzgerald said he hadn’t heard before.

It's not the first time there has been apparent confusion over the state's decision-making process. The state has sent conflicting messages about how counties were to calculate their caseloads, and was slow to roll out its expectations for how counties should test their population for the disease. It quietly published those standards late last week.

But on Saturday, Levine said “Governor Wolf has been extremely clear [about] the different criteria that we’ll be using.”

Population density is generally recognized as a factor in the spread of a disease -- denser populations by definition live closer together – and Wolf’s reopening plan has mentioned density as a potential factor from the outset. Levine noted that Pennsylvania’s largest city, Philadelphia, was a COVID-19 epicenter, along with urban centers like New York City. She called that “really part of basic public health."

"We have tried the best we can to communicate our reason for our choices," she said, "and we will continue to do so."