17848 DOH Testing Lab

Pennsylvania Commonwealth microbiologist Kerry Pollard performs a manual extraction of the coronavirus inside the extraction lab at the Pennsylvania Department of Health Bureau of Laboratories on Friday, March 6, 2020.

The Lancaster County commissioners, two of whom are pushing to reopen the county in defiance of the governor, plan to spend tens of millions of dollars in federal aid helping businesses relaunch and on testing thousands of people in nursing homes and in public for COVID-19 in hopes of a return to economic normalcy.

County commissioners on Wednesday granted preliminary approval to several proposals that will be paid for using some of the $95 million the county received as part of the federal coronavirus relief bill.

In the meantime, Republican commissioners and other elected GOP officials plan to move the county to the “yellow” phase of Gov. Tom Wolf’s reopening plan on Friday, despite Wolf extending the stay-at-home order in counties including Lancaster until at least June 4.

The move drew a strong rebuke from Wolf, who called it “cowardly.”

Here’s is how some of the federal funds will be used:

Testing and contact tracing at hospitals

The commissioners approved a $24.4 million agreement with Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health that will allow the health care institution to do contact tracing on 50 new COVID-19 cases and test 1,000 people each day for a year. The plan calls for offering WellSpan and UPMC Pinnacle a contract to participate.

Dr. Michael Ripchinski, Lancaster General’s chief clinical officer, said its daily testing capacity increased from about 200 to 330 in the last few days. He didn’t estimate how long it would take to fully ramp up, but said 800 or so tests a day may end up being sufficient.

For the two weeks ended May 8, Lancaster County averaged 48 new cases a day. Ripchinski noted that since then a few days have come in below 40 new cases, and he said social distancing is vital to keeping case counts low enough for contact tracing to work.

Testing at county nursing homes

They also approved a measure that will provide one-time testing of all of the approximately 8,000 residents and staff at the county’s nursing homes at a cost of just over $800,000, with results in about 72 hours.

Edwin Hurston, the county’s public health emergency advisor, said getting logistics in place will take a few days, and then all the testing should be finished within a couple of weeks. The idea is for this testing to get the process started and then the ongoing county and state Department of Health testing to follow up with homes over time, he said.

Personal protective equipment

As part of an agreement with the Lancaster Chamber and the Economic Development Company of Lancaster County, $6 million will be spent to purchase and distribute masks, gloves thermometers and other personal protective equipment meant to help businesses safely reopen.

EDC president Lisa Riggs said the purchases would be made through the county’s procurement office and then distributed for free to Lancaster County businesses. Riggs estimated it would take at least two to three weeks for any equipment to be available.

Grants for small businesses

For businesses, the cornerstone of the county’s economic recovery plan is a $25 million grant program focused on firms with fewer than 100 employees and prioritizing those with fewer than 20 employees. The grants can be used for “working capital” or to pay for health-related retrofits such as installing physical barriers or reconfiguring a factory or office to help keep employees safe.

The county commissioners will have final approval of the grant awards based on recommendations from the Lancaster Chamber, EDC, Assets and Community First Fund, which are overseeing the program.

While Riggs did not offer a timeline for when grants would be available, she said the intent is to have a streamlined process that makes it easy for business to apply and quickly receive funding. She said money could be distributed in several rounds and won't be paid out on a first-come, first-served basis.

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