Pittsburgh Has A Pandemic Plan. What Does It Say?

Mar 2, 2020

On today's program: One lawmaker is urging Harrisburg to reconsider its definition of a health emergency; Pittsburgh is updating its pandemic plan; farmers say a new horse racing bill could do more than harm than good; and Sojourner House welcomes a new leader.

When does the threat of pandemic become an emergency?
(00:00 — 8:36)

State Sen. Jay Costa is pushing to revive a bill that would authorize the Department of Health to declare a "health emergency" for up to 90 days in the case of outbreaks like the coronavirus. 

The Allegheny County Democrat says it would fast track aid during pandemics, bioterror attacks or other crises. Senate Bill 633, which passed the state Senate unanimously last June, wouldn’t require officials to disclose all the reasons why an emergency declaration is necessary and would also protect the decisions of government officials from liability if they acted with the best information that they had at the time. 

With the coronavirus now more likely to spread in the U.S., Costa says it's time for the House Health Committee to act.

"My hope is that they understand the purpose behind the legislation, and they understand the timeliness of the event and how it's not appropriate for us to use the typical emergency declaration that's used for infrastructure damage and things of that nature."

Traditionally, emergency declarations the governor’s office have concerned natural disasters. Costa says his bill would offer greater regulatory flexibility.

Building the infrastructure to contain an outbreak
(8:41 — 16:05)

There have been no reported cases of COVID-19, but officials are preparing for worst-case scenarios. 

90.5 WESA’s Megan Harris found that officials in Allegheny County are working from a collaborative “pandemic plan” that addresses concerns from dozens of stakeholders, including financial services, health care, media, schools, first responders, private business, grocery and food service, public transportation, airports and more. 

Mayor Bill Peduto tells the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that the city—through its public safety department—has the authority to enforce quarantines, take over hospitals and attempt to control people's movements in and out of the city. In a 2006 presentation related to the pandemic plan, which officials have said is not a public document, the Allegheny County Health Department estimated only about 90 percent of the region’s population would stay home if the government asked them to. 

The U.S. State Department has warned American citizens not to travel to China, and those who are returning from the country are being diverted to one of 11 domestic airports with appropriate quarantine stations for screening. Pittsburgh International is not among them

Bob Kerlik, vice president for media relations for the Allegheny County Airport Authority, says the airport itself has no way of knowing how many passengers may have had China on their flight plans in recent weeks, but PIT hasn’t offered a direct flight to China since a very limited business option in 2018.

Port Authority reported Monday that officials plan to increase how often they disinfect the inside of buses and light rail vehicles and will distribute hand sanitizer to employees who interact with the public. The authority provides about 220,000 weekday rides on its buses, mini buses and light rails, plus many more via its two funiculars and ACCESS cars for people with disabilities. Recommendations for riders include frequent hand washing, changing seats if someone near you appears to be sick and sitting down to avoid touching common surfaces like poles or straps when possible.

Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich said late last week that first responders were being trained to spot symptoms and will be outfitted with facemasks, gloves, protective eyewear and sanitizers. WESA’s Sarah Boden reports both UPMC and Allegheny Health Network are central to those conversations. 

If coronavirus comes, Hissrich says, “we will be prepared.”

State proposed cuts to horse industry in PA could hurt farmers
(17:48 — 24:39)

In his recent budget address, Gov. Tom Wolf proposed rerouting about $200 million earmarked for the horse racing industry towards college scholarships. Wolf argues that most of the horse owners live out of state and that the Pennsylvania horse racing can survive without the state giving money to boost “purses,” the prize money that owners receive when their horses win races.

For PA Post, Ed Mahon talked to horse industry workers who say those purses are the lifeblood of the business, and that Wolf’s proposal, if enacted, would put about 20,000 jobs at risk.

Getting women to a substance-free life alongside their children
(24:43 — 37:06)

For nearly 30 years, Sojourner House has been providing recovery services for women and their children. Executive director De’netta Benjamin-Miller, now in her fifth month at the helm, says centering children in those action plans is critical to sustainable recovery.

Mothers can bring up to three children with them and stay up to six months while receiving intensive treatment for their addiction while kids have access to after school programs, social activities and counseling. Unlike some other rehabilitation programs, Benjamin-Miller says Sojourner views stable housing as invaluable to recovery. 

“Our door is never closed,” she says, “If they show up at our doorstep, we will offer the services. If we can’t provide it, we will get them connected to the most appropriate care.”

90.5 WESA’s Caroline Bourque contributed to this program.

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in weekdays at 9 a.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts.