May 9, 2020

Pennsylvania deserves better

Pennsylvania’s fight against the covid-19 pandemic has upended its economy and rendered one in four workers jobless, all while putting our seniors in care homes at greater risk because of a serious policy flaw by Gov. Tom Wolf.

In mid-March, the governor issued an executive order — he has run virtually none of his decisions past the legislature — requiring nursing and personal care homes to accept covid-19 patients. His order was similar to orders in New Jersey and New York.

All three states suffered enormous mortality rates in these nursing homes. In Pennsylvania, nearly 69% of covid-19 deaths were from senior homes. The difference is that New York and New Jersey have rescinded these “must-accept” orders or amended them to require that covid-19 patients be isolated.

Pennsylvania, under Wolf, has not.

At the same time state officials were misjudging the vulnerability of senior citizens, Pennsylvania experienced a statewide stay-at-home order and a widespread shutdown of businesses deemed “non-essential.” The system was created in the governor’s office, behind closed doors, and the initial list was so restrictive it had to be amended. Among businesses initially closed was the state’s coal mining industry, which supplies fuel for both the steel and energy industries.

While neighboring states continued to allow construction, mining and automobile sales, Pennsylvanians in these fields and others were applying for unemployment benefits.

Waivers allowing some businesses to remain open were a secretive affair. The Wolf administration has steadfastly refused to allow the press or the legislature to examine the records of who got an exemption and why. This came at the same time newspapers reported that Wolf Home Products, a kitchen cabinet company founded by the governor’s family and later sold, had remained open under a waiver. When that waiver was rescinded under public pressure, Wolf Home Products continued to operate anyway.

The lack of transparency extended across the administration, with Wolf shutting down all Right to Know requests by the press and public. The governor and Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine hold daily briefings at which they answer a limited number of questions submitted in advance, with no possibility of follow-up questions.

It was only under threat of legislative subpoena that the administration finally provided the data showing that Pennsylvania is one of only six states where nursing homes are now the major source of covid-19 deaths.

To this day, Wolf’s original nursing home mandate stands. This fact is putting thousands of vulnerable senior citizens at significantly elevated risk of unnecessarily contracting the virus.

In addition to this deadly mandate, the lack of transparency from the administration regarding nursing homes experiencing covid-19 outbreaks, is leaving worried families across the commonwealth in the dark. In contrast, the Trump administration requires nursing homes to share information on new cases directly with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as report cases to residents and their family members.

I commend the Pennsylvania Legislature’s recent efforts to rectify this lack of transparency with a bill to require the state agencies to answer questions from the public and the media during emergency declarations. Unfortunately, just last week, Wolf indicated his opposition to this bill. A veto is expected.

What was Wolf’s reasoning for forcing mass business closures while at the same time requiring nursing homes to keep their doors open to patients contagious with covid-19?

Why does this administration refuse to disclose details on which nursing homes are experiencing covid-19 outbreaks and deaths?

Why does the administration refuse to follow other states in reforming this extremely misguided policy? The Wolf administration’s lack of transparency and cooperation is leaving the people of Pennsylvania with many more hard questions than comforting answers.

The people of Pennsylvania deserve better. At the very least, they deserve an explanation.

Guy Reschenthaler, a Republican, represents Pennsylvania’s 14th Congressional District encompassing Fayette, Green and Washington counties and portions of Westmoreland County.

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