Dr. Rachel Levine Presser Nov. 23

Pennsylvania Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine speaks at a virtual press conference Monday, Nov. 24, 2020. 

THE ISSUE

As Gov. Tom Wolf and state Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine announced last week, new modeling projects that Pennsylvania will see 22,000 new COVID-19 cases per day in December. They announced that they were strengthening enforcement aimed at chronic violators of COVID-19 safety guidelines; they issued a stay-at-home advisory (not a mandate); and they said visitors to Pennsylvania from other states were required to have a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours prior to entering the commonwealth, or would need to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. As LNP | LancasterOnline’s Nicole C. Brambila reported, the COVID-19 positivity rates in Lancaster County and Pennsylvania exceeded 11% — more than double the target level — last week. And Lancaster County surpassed the 15,000 mark in COVID-19 cases.

On Wednesday, as Lancaster County residents prepared for Thanksgiving, smartphones across the commonwealth buzzed with a public safety alert: “In PA, COVID-19 rates are rising & hospitals could soon be at capacity. Stay home if possible. If you must go out, maintain social distance, wear a mask, wash your hands for 20 seconds.”

It also advised people to download the COVID Alert PA app (more on that later).

We’re accustomed to getting these kinds of notifications when a tornado may be imminent or when a child goes missing and the police issue an Amber Alert, but we still find them unnerving.

It was particularly unsettling to pick up the phone and see a COVID-19 warning on the small screen. We might want to brace ourselves for additional such messages. According to the governor’s website, residents of a region may get an alert if it’s experiencing “an exceptionally high surge in COVID-19 cases.”

Things are serious.

Sometimes we wonder if we’re having trouble grasping the enormity of the crisis we’re facing because the numbers of the infected and dying are so vast. And they keep rolling upward like numbers on a telethon tote board.

That pace is likely only to increase in the days to come.

And still, some people don’t quite seem to get it. Like the Republican state senators who gathered Wednesday in Gettysburg for a charade of a hearing about alleged election irregularities. Photos showed at least four Pennsylvania senators unmasked and sitting inches away from one another at a long table for the hearing.

There they sat, unmasked and occupied with a useless, trumped-up partisan exercise, as the commonwealth’s Department of Health prepared its first COVID-19 public health alert. And as intensive-care unit beds across Pennsylvania drew closer to capacity.

Staffing shortage

Last Monday, we learned from state Health Secretary Levine that Pennsylvania could run out of those beds this very week.

That isn’t just a matter of running out of mattresses and equipment. That means running out of the staffing required to deliver the level of care that COVID-19 patients need.

“Americans worry about their local grocery stores’ running out of paper towels and toilet paper,” wrote longtime ICU nurse Janet Campbell-Vincent, in a column published on nbcnews.com last week. “Just imagine how much more worried they'll be if their local hospitals, overwhelmed by surges of Covid-19 patients, run out of nurses.”

Campbell-Vincent, who has worked in COVID-19 units in Phoenix and New York City, lamented the fact that members of the U.S. Senate were on vacation, even though they’d failed to reach a compromise with House Democrats on a desperately needed coronavirus relief package.

“I wish medical workers could take vacation days, too,” she wrote. “I ran out of those months ago, when I contracted Covid-19 treating patients in the ICU. I’m exhausted. I’m angry. I’m sick of watching patients die. I’m tired of comforting families feeling guilty over the birthday party that cost their loved one’s life.”

‘In their best interest’

What we continue to find frustrating is how many people refuse to embrace the simple, effective measures — mask-wearing, social distancing — that could help keep COVID-19 infection rates in check.

“We had no idea how difficult it would be to get people to comply with basic public health measures that are in their best interest,” Lancaster General Hospital President and CEO Jan L. Bergen told her board of trustees earlier this month.

There continues to be this misguided idea that adhering to those measures is bowing to fear. Or giving into weakness. Or failing to put one’s trust in God.

It is none of these things.

As a dozen or so presidents and CEOs of local retirement communities wrote in an op-ed in today’s Perspective section, “Following these health guidelines and wearing masks in public settings are not signs of weakness or lack of faith, but rather a sign of care and respect for others throughout the larger community.”

And as four UPMC Pinnacle executives, including that health care system’s president, Philip Guarneschelli, wrote in a letter to the editor published in Thursday’s LNP | LancasterOnline, “Wearing a mask has been shown to protect the wearer as well as others from the virus.”

They added: “It’s time to redouble our efforts and do everything in our individual power to help keep people from getting sick.”

They also asked readers to thank the health care heroes who are risking their lives to care for patients with COVID-19. We second that.

But we’d also add this: The best way you can thank them is to wear a mask, practice social distancing and wash your hands thoroughly and regularly. And to urge your family members and friends to do the same. They are far more likely to listen to you, someone they love, than to us.

Another way to help

Here’s another thing we all could do: download the Pennsylvania Department of Health’s COVID Alert PA app.

As LNP | LancasterOnline’s Brambila explained in an article earlier this month, the app “alerts users via Bluetooth technology when they have come into close contact with someone infected with COVID-19.” It’s available for free in the Google Play Store and the Apple App Store; search “COVID Alert PA.”

As the state Department of Health website emphasizes, “The app never collects or reveals the identity of any person using the app, and never reveals who has been diagnosed as positive for COVID-19.” But it allows users to track and report any symptoms they may have and get information about what they should do.

Geoffrey A. Fowler, technology columnist at The Washington Post, wrote last week that these apps “might sound like a privacy invasion, but they figured out how to track encounters between people in a way that’s anonymous — and doesn’t store your location — by using the Bluetooth wireless technology in phones.”

“I’m usually the first person to caution that we shouldn’t trust corporations or the government with our sensitive personal data,” Fowler wrote. “But after investigating the data flowing out of these state-sponsored apps and services, I haven’t found much danger in having them on my phone.”

And the upside: The more Pennsylvanians who download the app, the more comprehensive and useful it will be. Please consider doing this. 

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