Officials in Delaware and Bucks Counties are asking Gov. Tom Wolf to aid the Philadelphia region as it looks to eventually reopen, including by increasing diagnostic testing and separately assessing new coronavirus cases in its nursing-home population against those among the rest of the population.
State health officials, meanwhile, say these populations are naturally intertwined and unable to be separated. Gov. Tom Wolf said Tuesday he would “take into account” how much community spread is occurring outside nursing homes and other congregate-care facilities, and balance that with the statewide reopening criteria.
“We are trying to make this reopening process as measured, reasonable, and logical as we can, but there will always be a measure of subjectivity in it," the governor said. “If we don’t take into account that there may be a higher density of long-term care facilities or congregate care areas like prisons in an area, then we’re not being realistic.”
The Delaware County council noted that for the county to reach Wolf’s benchmark for reopening, it would have to record an average of 20 new cases per day for two weeks. Last week, the county averaged 139 new cases per day. But 70% of deaths and 20% of all positive cases are from long-term care facilities, the council said.
“Council views our current situation as two separate challenges that require separate approaches,” councilman Kevin Madden said in a Monday press conference, reading from a statement prepared by the council.
The Democratic-controlled body said if Wolf, a fellow Democrat, would assess the cases in the community outside nursing homes, the county may begin to at least partially reopen “before too long."
“Let me be clear: We are not calling on the governor to reopen Delaware County until we can safely do so, and there is still too much spread of COVID-19 in the community at this time," Madden said in a phone interview. “The governor has set targets for counties to open. We are calling on the state to give us the necessary resources to meet these targets as soon as we can.”
Tom Killion, a Republican state senator from Delaware County, and eight Republican state representatives from Bucks County later joined in the call for a modified metric.
“A general shutdown in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic was justified," Killion said in a statement. “However, we now know this virus disproportionately affects our seniors and those with underlying conditions. ... Adhering to the metric previously announced without consideration of congregate care home cases will delay the reopening of our region for weeks if not months.”
Eight Republican state representatives from Bucks County — Sen. Bob Mensch, Sen. Tommy Tomlinson, Rep. Frank Farry, Rep. Todd Polinchock, Rep. Meghan Schroeder, Rep. Craig Staats, Rep. Wendi Thomas, and Rep. Kathleen Tomlinson — signed a letter to the governor and the health secretary in favor of this revised metric. Bucks County’s three-member, Democratic-controlled board of commissioners, as well as its health department, are also on board, the legislators said in a statement.
The Bucks County lawmakers signed the letter “with the acknowledgement that we have very little community spread and a significant amount of our cases are from long-term facilities,” they said.
The governor indicated Tuesday that even if nursing home cases were excluded, the Philadelphia region would not be out of the woods in terms of the virus’ spread.
“We are trying to keep people safe,” Wolf said. “If you look beyond long-term care home mortality rates in the southeast [part of the state], you still have a troubling situation.”
Philadelphia Health Public Health Commissioner Tom Farley said it could be a good idea to separately follow nursing home case data, as long as those cases aren’t removed from the broader equation entirely.
“We certainly need to make sure that we have some sense that nursing homes are getting better, as well as a sense that the overall epidemic is getting better,” he said.
Health Secretary Rachel Levine said Monday these populations will not be excluded when gauging which areas can resume some business.
“We have been asked this question before, and we are not going to separate nursing home cases from other cases in counties," Levine said. "What we have certainly learned in this global pandemic of COVID-19 is that we are all interconnected. One section of our community … impacts the general community, and the community impacts that facility.”
Levine said it is impossible to separate these sectors, particularly because staff members go back and forth between the facility and the broader community.
This request comes as 24 counties in northern parts of the state prepare to move into the initial phase of reopening Friday, and officials work to balance the public health risks of a pandemic with the economic fallout of a prolonged shutdown.
Health officials say stay-at-home orders and other measures are key to mitigating the pandemic. In the process, however, the economy has suffered. Already more than 1.6 million Pennsylvanians have lost their jobs due to the coronavirus.
While nearly 70% of Pennsylvanians, including half of self-identified Republicans, approve of Wolf’s response, the ones who don’t have made their voices heard. Some Republican lawmakers last month spoke to and mingled with a crowd of protesters who rallied outside the state Capitol to call for the economy to reopen.
Wolf has said repeatedly that he expects the densely populated Philadelphia region to be among the last to reopen. The governor has said he based his decisions on a per capita metric — an average of fewer than 50 new reported cases over 14 days per 100,000 residents — and other factors, such as hospital capacity and testing capabilities.
Delaware County officials say the Philadelphia region should be first in line for more diagnostic testing.
Along with leaders of other Southeastern Pennsylvania counties, the council called on Wolf to prioritize increasing testing in the hard-hit area, “the economic engine that drives the state economy and contributes a disproportionate share of the state’s tax revenue.”
Health officials are looking to expand testing across the commonwealth, including in the collar counties around Philadelphia, Levine said.
“The governor has outlined a plan for reopening,” Madden said, “and the Philadelphia region must be given the necessary resources to reach the targets set out.”
Even if given these tools, Madden said officials would not rush to reopen too quickly at the risk of vulnerable residents.
“Regardless of political party or background, we all want the same things,” he said. “We all want to see businesses open. None of us want to see others die from the virus."