Lancaster County is prepared to issue a disaster declaration for COVID-19 “if we have to,” county commissioner Josh Parsons said Thursday.

Parson was among a group of county leaders who addressed the county’s COVID-19 preparations Thursday afternoon at a press conference at the Lancaster County Public Safety Training Center.

“We certainly hope we don’t have to do things as serious as that,” Parson said.

Public cooperation in things like hygiene and canceling or avoiding large gatherings will be key to fighting the coronavirus effectively, the leaders said. They urged people to calmly follow the guidance of state health officials and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as the situation evolves.

Leaders said that while people should be prepared — the CDC recommends having three days of food and water on hand — the mass stockpiling that has been happening is unnecessary.

Here are four takeaways from the press conference in East Hempfield Township.

Hospitals expect testing, adjustments

Dr. Joseph Kontra is chief of infectious diseases at Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health, which has the county’s largest hospital.

“We can and we are testing people now,” Kontra said, noting that providers are trying to steward resources well and test “those patients who it is most important to know the answer.”

Testing will not be widespread until capacity ramps up “quite a bit more” than it has, he said, but plans are being made to do it on an outpatient basis to limit possible transmission.

WellSpan Health announced Thursday that outdoor screening and testing areas were being set up for future use.

Vital equipment such as masks, respirators and ventilators are in short supply here as they are everywhere, Kontra said, and meetings are happening “almost continuously” to make sure “that we have not only adequate staffing and staffing contingency planning, but also adequate supplies.”

Plans call for COVID-19 patients to be put on a certain floor with specific trained staff, he said, but a key issue will be keeping patients who don’t need acute care — including 85% of people who get the virus — out of the hospital.

Officials stressed that people who may have the virus need to call before going to a doctor’s office or emergency room, and if calling 911 must tell the dispatcher so first responders can arrive with proper protection.

Eventually, Kontra said, it may be necessary to cut back on elective procedures to free up bed space and personnel for COVID-19.

In response to a question, he also said the issue of the reopening the former St. Joseph Hospital for extra capacity “is being explored” but a final decision has not been made.

UPMC Pinnacle closed the Lancaster city hospital last February, and it has been vacant since, with the system a few months ago starting the process of seeking rezoning so it would be more attractive to developers. A spokeswoman did not provide further details.

when to seek care for COVID-19

The Pennsylvania Department of Health provided this guidance on when to seek care for COVID-19. 

Tough call at nursing homes

Dr. Leon Kraybill, who represented Lancaster Area Senior Services, said the 32 nursing homes in the county are moving toward limiting visitors to “only very severe end of life” situations, and screening staff.

Restrictions have already made some family members angry, he said, but for people age 80 and older it appears that the virus mortality rate “gets up closer to 15%.”

“To have our residents in long-term care get infected, you have to get it into the facility, likely brought by visitors who come to the facility or staff,” he said. “The health and safety of our long-term care residents is our highest priority.”

He also recommended limiting hospital visits during the outbreak.

Polling changes possible

Commissioner Ray D’Agostino, who is chairman of the county board of elections, said it’s in the final stages of identifying a second layer of backup polling places for the April 28 primary election, particularly for those in retirement communities.

It’s also preparing to “optimize distance” between people in the polling places, routinely clean surfaces, and provide means to maintain clean hands.

And, he said, Pennsylvania now has a mail-in ballot option that people can apply for up to a week before the primary election.

Courts can’t just cancel

David Ashworth, president judge of Lancaster County Court of Common Pleas, said unlike sporting events the judicial system “can’t just cancel.”

However, there is a framework for reducing operations temporarily, and the judges will be evaluating options for that Tuesday.

Tweets from the meeting