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COVID-19 Vaccination Efforts 'In A Race With This New Variant,' Says One Infectious Disease Doctor

Rogelio V. Solis
The new, more transmissible coronavirus variant has been detected in Pennsylvania, but one infectious disease physician says the available vaccines should be just as effective at fighting it.

On today's program: An infectious disease physician says the arrival of a more contagious variant of COVID-19 should be motivating the vaccination rollout; The Pittsburgh Penguins received nearly $5 million as a loan through the Paycheck Protection Program; and the 105th Pennsylvania Farm Show has gone virtual this year.

More contagious COVID-19 variant has reached Pennsylvania
(0:00 - 5:57) 

On Thursday, Pennsylvania Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine announced the new variant of COVID-19, first discovered in England, reached Pennsylvania

Dr. Amesh Adalja, a Pittsburgh-based infectious disease and critical care physician, says experts have always known this variant of the virus was circulating in the United States. However, only a select number of COVID-positive tests are sent to labs for further genetic sequencing, so he’s not surprised finding the new variant would take more time. 

“We know this is something that has been circulating around the world, and it’s likely in many places if you start to look,” Adalja says. 

While Adalja says the new variant is not more severe than the common strain of COVID-19, it does transfer more easily from person to person. 

“There’s no evidence that it evades our vaccines, but it is something that underscores the need to be much more meticulous with our common sense precautions,”says Adalja.

Adalja says public messaging must stay consistent as hospitals struggle with capacity and new cases emerge following the holidays. He says expediting the vaccine roll-out is something policy makers need to prioritize to avoid a similar outbreak seen in the United Kingdom. 

“We have to double down on our vaccination efforts and continue to put as many shots into people’s arms as possible,” Adalja says. 

One aspect of combating the virus that still requires work, according to Adalja, is testing: Pennsylvania has one of the lowest testing rates in the country

“We still need to come a long way with testing. I think that we are able to test better in the hospitals but we want people to be tested for everyday life because that’s going to make everyday life so much easier,” Adalja says. 

Pittsburgh Penguins receive stimulus relief
(6:04 - 12:05) 

Lemieux Group LP received a $4.8 million paycheck as a part of the coronavirus relief and stimulus package passed in August. It’s reportedly one of the only professional sports teams in North America to receive this loan

Sean Gentille, senior writer for The Athletic, says the Penguins were not the only team to apply for a Paycheck Protection Program loan. The Los Angeles Lakers applied within the first 13 days of the relief’s availability, but returned the money after receiving public backlash for using a program intended to support small businesses. 

The Penguins received their money in the second round of stimulus relief distribution on August 6, and Gentille says the team needed it to pay stadium rent.

“They wanted the money to spend on their rent which goes to the city and county-owned Sports and Exhibition Authority, which owns PPG Paints Arena, Heinz Field, PNC Park, and the Convention Center,” Gentille explains.

Gentille says the Penguins did not receive the delay in rent payment they had asked for, despite being the only Pittsburgh team to do so.  Gentille says there were other options for the Penguins to pay the rent, like having billionaire and part team owner Ron Burkel loan the payment interest free, or pay employee salaries. 

“The vast majority of his wealth is made up from supermarket money and other kind of equity, but if you’re talking about a $5 million rent payment or three months of 30 salaries, I do also think it’s fair to say that he’s made plenty, plenty, plenty more than that on the Penguins over the years,” Gentille says. 

Gentille says the team could have simply delayed its rent payment because the SEA can’t “kick them out” of the stadium, but unlike the LA Lakers, it’s unlikely the team will receive major backlash for accepting the PPP loan.

“I think that it’s probably a blip on the radar because it’s tough for people to stay mad over stuff like this for all that long, especially when it involves sports,” Gentille says. 

Gentille says if the ownership hadn’t been Mario Lemieux, public reaction may have been different. 

“I think if it was somebody else who maybe wasn’t as beloved here and didn’t have as much of a deservedly good reputation, I think things would be a little different.”

Pennsylvania Farm Show goes virtual

(12:10 - 18:00)

The 105th annual Pennsylvania Farm Show began virtually on Saturday. Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture Russell Redding says despite the limits to an online show, 2020 is still a year to celebrate agriculture. 

Redding says the food supply chain changed almost overnight in the early stages of the pandemic as people went from gathering in restaurants to eating exclusively at home.

 “I think we’re all sort of reminded of just how fragile that food system is but how important it is as well,” says Redding.

The show’s theme, “Cultivating Tomorrow,” looks at what’s to be learned from the past year of farming. 

Redding says the industry is struggling from the lack of restaurant business and wants to adapt to more at-home food consumption.  In the meantime, $13 billion of Congress’s newest coronavirus stimulus relief will go to the agriculture industry, but Redding says this won’t be enough. 

“When you look long term and when you realize you’re feeding half a million people a week, what we have in the stimulus package helps, but it doesn’t answer the full question of need for people beyond the spring,” Redding says. 

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.


Kevin Gavin is the host of WESA's news interview program "The Confluence." He is a native Pittsburgher and served as news director for 90.5 WDUQ for 34 years. Since the sale of the radio station by Duquesne University to Pittsburgh EPM, Inc. (now Pittsburgh Community Broadcasting Corp.), he served as Executive Producer of Special News Projects prior to being named as host of "The Confluence" five years ago. kgavin@wesa.fm
Marylee is the editor/producer of The Confluence, the daily public affairs show on WESA. She got her start in journalism at The Daily Reveille and KLSU while attending Louisiana State University. She took her passion for audio journalism to UC Berkeley's graduate program and worked in public radio at WPR in Madison, WI, and WOSU in Columbus, Ohio.
Laura Tsutsui is a producer for The Confluence, WESA's morning news show. Previously, she reported on the San Joaquin Valley with the NPR affiliate station in her hometown of Fresno, California. She can be reached at ltsutsui@wesa.fm.
Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Isabelle is a student at George Washington University studying Political Communication. She loves all things Pittsburgh sports and serves as a sports anchor for GW-TV. In her free time, she enjoys museum hopping and walking her dog, Stevie.
Julia Zenkevich is a general assignment reporter for 90.5 WESA. She first joined the station as a production assistant on The Confluence, and more recently served as a fill-in producer for The Confluence and Morning Edition. She’s a life-long Pittsburgher, and attended the University of Pittsburgh. She can be reached at jzenkevich@wesa.fm.
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