As Deaths Spike, Some Areas Could See 'Robust' Reopening

Apr 21, 2020

 Regions of Pennsylvania that have seen a relatively low number of confirmed cases of the new coronavirus might be able to reopen “in a fairly robust” way on May 8, Gov. Tom Wolf said Tuesday, shedding more light on his recovery roadmap even as the state's death toll rose sharply.

State health officials recently changed the way they count COVID-19 deaths, resulting in a near-doubling of the state's death toll in just three days, from 836 to more than 1,500. Many of the deaths occurred days or weeks ago, according to the Department of Health, and the number of new virus cases has trended down recently.

Wolf, a Democrat, says Pennsylvania has made sufficient progress to begin gradually reopening some businesses in early May, depending on the availability of widespread diagnostic testing and the capacity of the health care system. Republicans are pushing a more aggressive timetable.

In a conference call with reporters Tuesday, Wolf said he intends to loosen restrictions on people and businesses in much the same way they were imposed: Gradually, and county by county.

“There is not one size that fits all. We can start to reopen the state in, I think, some areas (in) a fairly robust way, in other areas less so,” Wolf said. “If I were in Philadelphia, I probably would not want my government to be saying, ’OK, everything seems to be just perfect right now.'”

More than half of all people who have tested positive for the virus statewide live in Philadelphia and its four suburban counties. Many rural counties, by contrast, have been minimally impacted. Five counties have reported just one or two cases.

His health secretary, Dr. Rachel Levine, said Tuesday that contact tracing — identifying people who have been exposed to an infected person so they can be quarantined — will be “very important” as Pennsylvania emerges from the pandemic.

Wolf said there’s no budget for contact tracing, but Levine, in a separate briefing, gave assurances that Pennsylvania will have a “very robust” tracing program that will be funded with federal dollars.

Other coronavirus-related developments in Pennsylvania:

CASES BY ZIP CODE

The health department has started releasing ZIP code-level information about cases of the novel coronavirus.

State health officials published an interactive map on Monday that shows the number of confirmed cases of the new virus and the number of negative virus tests. The map is searchable by county and ZIP code. The county data also shows the number of COVID-19 deaths.

Levine said even residents in communities with a relatively low number of confirmed cases should continue to heed social distancing rules, noting a lack of widespread testing means the actual number of people with the virus is far higher than what shows up in the statistics.

The virus has been spreading faster in recent days in less populated counties like Columbia, Northumberland, Juniata and Susquehanna.

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NURSING HOMES

Two days after the federal government said it planned to collect and release data on COVID-19 at individual nursing homes, the health department said it would look into doing the same.

For weeks, state health officials have refused to publicly release the names of long-term care facilities with virus cases. Statewide, 796 residents of these facilities have died — over half the state’s COVID-19 death toll. Advocates and some lawmakers say the agency’s reluctance to name names endangers residents, staff and the public at large.

Late Sunday, following a request from Democratic U.S. Sens. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Ron Wyden of Oregon, the federal government said it would track virus infections and deaths at nursing homes nationwide and release that information to the public.

Levine said Tuesday that Pennsylvania might follow suit.

“I think we will strongly consider doing that," she said. "We’ll have to figure out the right way to do that so that we get the most information to the public but also protect patient privacy. So we’ll be working to look at that over the next number of days.”

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CASES

Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 death toll rose by 360 to 1,564, the state health department reported Tuesday, with nearly 1,300 additional people testing positive for the virus.

Not all of the deaths happened in one 24-hour period. The health department has been revising its numbers upward because it is now including probable deaths in the tally. A probable death is one in which a coroner or medical examiner listed COVID-19 as the cause or contributing cause, but the deceased was not tested for the virus.

Officials have said the updated numbers are part of the department’s efforts to reconcile data provided by hospitals, health care systems, county and municipal health departments and long-term care living facilities with the department’s own records.

Statewide, more than 34,500 people have tested positive for the virus.

For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up in a couple of weeks. Older adults and people with existing health problems are at higher risk of more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death.

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ONE RETAILER, ONE CUSTOMER

Retail businesses would be able to open if they can operate with a single employee serving one customer at a time under legislation that passed the GOP-controlled state House on Tuesday.

The proposal would also permit retail stores to offer curbside pickup, as the state-owned liquor store system has recently started doing.

Republican backers said the one-worker, one-customer system would be safer than shopping at large retail outlets that have been permitted to remain open during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Democratic opponents called the proposal shortsighted and warned it would expose workers and customers to risk of infection.

On Monday, Wolf vetoed a different Republican-backed bill that would have reopened retail businesses.

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TELEMEDICINE BILL

The state Senate approved legislation that requires insurers to cover health care services delivered remotely by audio and video, though the bill’s fate is in limbo because Democrats say it would interfere with abortion rights.

The Republican-controlled Senate voted along party lines to approve the bill that Democrats say faces a veto by Wolf, who supports abortion rights.

The abortion pill is not available at pharmacies, and Planned Parenthood says women who visit a clinic are sometimes prescribed it after a video consultation with a physician who is not physically present. Democrats say the bill that passed Tuesday would ban doctors from prescribing the abortion bill via telemedicine. Republicans say it wouldn’t change anything.