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Pennsylvania transitions to treating COVID-19 as ‘endemic’

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John Minchillo
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AP

On today’s episode of The Confluence: Infectious disease expert Dr. Amesh Adalja brings us up to speed on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest masking guidelines, and what it means for the state to treat COVID-19 as "endemic"; and Pittsburgh Restaurant Workers Aid co-founders explain what’s new in a proposal to update the state’s rules for compensation tipped employees.  

Pennsylvania moving toward 'endemic' phase of COVID-19 
(0:00 - 7:13)

Pennsylvania is moving to a new phase in its response to COVID-19.

“Pennsylvania is prepared for a transition toward endemic,” Acting Secretary of Health Keara Klinepeter said last Friday.

Klinepeter explained that, “COVID-19 isn’t going away,” but the state is better equipped to handle COVID-19 in this transition.

Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, says labeling this phase of COVID-19 as endemic means living with the disease.

“It’s kind of within the population, something that circulates on a day-to-day basis that we deal with on a year in and year out basis,” he says. “It’s also something that, it's not going to ever go away.”

The county health department reported 18 hospitalizations in the week of Feb. 20, compared to 526 hospitalizations the week of Jan. 9. “The goal was to shift illness to the milder spectrum, so it becomes more of an outpatient illness,” Adalja says.

The CDC also changed its mask guidelines last Friday, allowing people to forgo wearing masks indoors in counties labeled as low- and medium-risk. These labels are based on the number of hospitalizations, new cases, and hospital capacity.

“This is something I think the CDC should have done long ago,” Adalja says. “Hospital capacity should have been incorporated into public health measures from the very start.”

Due to the availability of vaccines, level of immunity, and new treatments such as monoclonal antibodies, Adalja believes “Western Pennsylvania and Pennsylvania in general are in much better shape than they have been at any other time in the pandemic.

“It's not going to be 2019,” he says “The virus isn't going to magically go back into bats. We have to kind of find a way to navigate through this, and I think we're really poised to do so with the tools that medicine and science have given us.”

Proposed regulations for tipped workers could mean increased take-home pay 
(7:13 - 18:30)

The Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry submitted proposed regulations for how tipped workers in the state should be compensated.

“A large percentage of my income comes from tips, and it comes from interacting with customers,” says Kacy McGill, a tipped worker in the food service industry who is also the co-founder and co-director of Pittsburgh Restaurant Workers Aid. “That's really difficult to navigate as we're in a pandemic, and people are in different levels of frustration about pandemic restrictions.”

Taylor Stessney, the other co-founder and co-director of the mutual aid group, says she’s “...seen people even leave the industry because now they're realizing that this isn't a sustainable career choice that they once thought they had.”

One of the regulations increases the amount in tips a worker must receive monthly from $30 to $135 before an employer can reduce the worker’s wage from $7.25 per hour to as low as $2.83 per hour.

“So if you make more than $135 a month in tips, then your employer can pay you the sub-minimum wage of $2.83 an hour,” says Stessney.

Another regulation says workers must spend at least 80% of their time on tipped work for their employer to take a tip credit.

“It's kind of like a codification of the federal regulations for the 80/20 rule, as it's known in the restaurant industry, that workers have to work 80% of their time on tipped work,” says Stessney.

The department also proposed prohibiting employers from deducting credit card processing fees from workers’ tips and allowing non-supervisor workers to pool together and evenly divide tips.

“It’s keeping more money in the pockets of workers,” says McGill. “After two years of really difficult times for the restaurant industry, we want to be able to work with Labor & Industry and to amplify the voices of restaurant workers.”

The Independent Regulatory Review Commission will review these regulations at its March 21 meeting.

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in Monday to Thursday at 9 a.m. and 7:30 p.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.
Boen Wang is a writer, audio producer, and MFA candidate in creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh. His written work appeared in The Sunday Long Read, The Fourth River, Inheritance, and elsewhere; his audio work won the “Best New Artist” award at the 2020 Third Coast International Audio Festival, was selected as one of The Bello Collective’s “100 Outstanding Podcasts of 2020,” and was shortlisted for the 2021 HearSay Audio Festival Prize. Visit his website at boen.cool.
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