Pennsylvania will consider reopening on a county-by-county basis, instead of sticking to the regional approach Gov. Tom Wolf outlined in his initial reopening plan, top state officials said during a joint Senate hearing hosted by Sen. Scott Martin (R., Martic Township) on Monday.
Wolf’s plan is based on a color-coded approach for regions to slowly reopen as the curve of infection flattens, with Lancaster County in the southeast region – the counties with the highest rates of coronavirus infection. Lancaster’s state, local and federal Republican representatives have been highly critical of the plan, pleading that Lancaster be considered on its own or placed in the southcentral region, as it’s often defined.
Lancaster continues to report new cases at nearly three times the rate set by the Wolf administration for reopening to be possible. Wolf’s plan sets a metric of 50 new cases per 100,000 residents over a 14-day period, meaning Lancaster would need to report no more than 273 new cases cumulatively over that time period. The county has had 755 new cases in the past 14 days.
State Department of Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine testified at the hearing to question Wolf's reopening plan that this metric was set by her department, which also considers testing and contact tracing capabilities in the region.
Lancaster County is a good example of a county that must remain in the “red” stage of Wolf’s reopening plan, Levine said in testimony Monday, because it is “still having significant community transmission.”
“If you let businesses open, which is the hallmark of a ‘yellow’ stage, we would just see more community transmission in Lancaster County and rates would skyrocket,” Levine testified.
The hearing, hosted by the Health and Human Services Committee and the Local Government Committee, which Martin chairs, included a panel of members of Wolf’s cabinet (Levine, Department of Community and Economic Development Secretary Dennis Davin and Randy Padfield, executive director of PEMA). Another panel was made up of health executives and county leaderes, including Dr. Michael Ripchinski from Lancaster General Health, Mercer County Commissioner Matt McConnell and Montgomery County Commissioner Dr. Valerie Arkoosh.
Lancaster General Health is attempting its own contact tracing, Ripchinski said. A team of 20 nurses alerts people if they had had contact with someone who tested positive, and the hospital is working with Lancaster city on its tracing efforts.
Martin repeatedly mentioned that 80% of Lancaster County’s COVID-19 deaths are happening in nursing homes and asked officials whether this will be the precedent to shut down for future outbreaks or flu season.
Ripchinski said there are two “big pieces of the puzzle” that set the novel coronavirus apart from a traditional flu season: contagiousness and the mortality rate. He said Lancaster General has seen patients from a 4-month-old infant to a 102-year-old, with a majority of its cases around the age of 57.
The age range with the highest rate of infection in Montgomery County is ages 50-59, with 20 to 29-year-olds following, Arkoosh said.
“It is overstated that this is just a disease of much older people,” she added.