Gov. Wolf and Republicans Haven’t Agreed Much in the Fight Against COVID-19. Now Cases Are Rising.

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By Elle Meyers, Kimberly Lawson

July 2, 2020

This week, public health experts downgraded the state from “making progress” to “trending poorly.”

Several Pennsylvania counties are now seeing an uptick of newly reported infections.

State officials said there were more than 830 people who tested positive for COVID-19 on Wednesday, bringing the statewide total to above 88,000. The state last recorded more than 800 new positive tests in May. It also reported another 25 coronavirus-related deaths for a statewide total of 6,712 since early March.

While the hospitalizations for the virus have continued to fall, officials said the percentage of people testing positive has been rising the last two weeks.

Allegheny County, for example, reported more than 230 new coronavirus cases Wednesday, a day after it reported a single-day high of 110. County officials said the recent spike is due to the reopening of bars and restaurants in mid-June, and recently banned on-site alcohol consumption.

“While an increase in the number of cases was expected—this is larger than expected,” county officials said in a statement. “The expectation is that the numbers will also significantly increase again tomorrow.”

Meanwhile in southeastern Pennsylvania, Bucks County reported a “modest increase” of coronavirus cases when it entered the green phase of reopening on June 26. While the number of new cases remains relatively low, local health officials said they were monitoring potential coronavirus outbreaks tied to reopening.

Bucks County is ranked third in the state with the most coronavirus cases at 5,777 infections and 565 deaths

“Number one, just remember that [the virus] is still there,” Bucks County Health Department Director Dr. David Damsker said. “It’s not gone. Green does not mean gone.”

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While Gov. Tom Wolf’s measured, county-by-county approach to reopening has garnered praise—Joe Biden told the governor in May his phased plan was “the kind of thing we should be doing nationally”—public health and crises experts with moved the state from its yellow (“making progress”) category to red (“trending poorly”) on June 27.

“What we are seeing right now in our state is that while we’re doing some things right, we must act more comprehensively to protect the health and welfare of our citizens and beat this virus,” said Emma Horst-Martz of the public interest group PennPIRG Campaign.

The Republican-majority General Assembly and Wolf have been at odds about the best way to manage the crisis since the beginning of the pandemic. Most recently, state lawmakers tried ending the governor’s pandemic shutdown orders in a resolution they believed would allow businesses to reopen across the state.

Wolf, however, pushed back and said the resolution would ultimately hurt Pennsylvanians by ending regulatory flexibility during the crisis—including affecting utility assistance for thousands of families and threatening federal pandemic-related funding.  

On Wednesday, the state Supreme Court ruled against Republicans’ efforts to end the declaration on what they called a “legal nullity”: The resolution was not sent to Wolf to sign or veto.

“This is a very disappointing and frustrating decision by the court,” state Rep. Chris Quinn (R-168) wrote on Facebook. “The Governor needed to declare a disaster declaration in early March when the pandemic began. He needed to quickly implement protective measures to secure the health and safety of Pennsylvanians. We did not know much about this disease at that time, and the legislature was unable to quickly convene and legislate properly at that time. That is the entire point of granting the Governor emergency powers.”

“However,” he continued, “we now know much more about COVID-19 and the legislature has the capability to meet remotely to pass necessary legislation.”

In fact, Republicans have repeatedly pushed legislation allowing for counties to reopen quickly—potentially putting more Pennsylvanians’ at risk. In May, they even proposed a bill to allow localities to decide for themselves whether or not it was safe to lift restrictions. 

Rep. Meghan Schroeder, who represents parts of Bucks County, took to Facebook in late May to lambast the administration’s decision to move the county to the yellow phase on June 5. “We still have a long way to go. It is unacceptable to me that despite [plans to reopen] certain industries will still not be permitted to safely operate in a manner that protects their employees, their customers and our families.” 

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Schroeder joined other Bucks County representatives, including Todd Polinchock and Wendi Thomas, and signed on to House Bill 2541, which would have given localities the right to reopen businesses after officials conferred with the local emergency management team, health department, or director of health. Within weeks, however, it was removed from consideration.

According to health experts, shutting down businesses and encouraging residents to limit their contact with others was necessary to slow down the spread of the virus and prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed. A study published last month found that shutdown orders prevented about 60 million infections in the United States.

RELATED: Arizona, Florida, and Texas See a Surge in COVID Cases. Now Their Governors Are Singing a Different Tune.

The consequences of reopening too early can be seen in other states: The U.S is now seeing massive spikes across the country after some began loosening their restrictions last month. States like Texas and Florida were among the first to reopen, and are now seeing consistently high numbers of COVID-19 cases.

Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, warned on Tuesday that the rise of cases “puts the entire country at risk,” and that new infections could reach 100,000 a day if people don’t start listening to public health authorities.

“When you have an outbreak in one part of the country, even though in other parts of the country they’re doing well, they are vulnerable,” Fauci said.

It’s a point that Wolf has taken seriously: On Wednesday, he announced a mandatory mask order for anyone who leaves their home.

“It is essential that Pennsylvanians wear masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine said in a statement. “While cases increase in some areas, we cannot become complacent. My mask protects you, and your mask protects me. Wearing a mask shows that you care about others, and that you are committed to protecting the lives of those around you.”

Additional reporting from the Associated Press.




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