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By Sheri Melnick, Pennsylvania Legislative Services | March 17, 2020


Dr. Rachel Levine, secretary, Pennsylvania Department of Health (DOH), was joined by administration officials this afternoon to provide an update on the novel coronavirus.


Sec. Levine commented that as of 12 a.m., the total number of presumptive positive cases in the state is 96. She stated that all persons who tested positive are in isolation at home or are being treated in a hospital. She noted that a county breakdown of cases is available on the DOH website. Sec. Levine commented that DOH is now receiving test results from commercial and hospital laboratories as well as the state laboratory. She explained that 879 patients have currently tested negative while noting that DOH made changes to provide updated COVID-19 test results once a day. She said, “Any results reported after 12:00 a.m. will be reported the next day.” With regards to where the testing is being conducted, Sec. Levine stated that most are being tested through commercial or hospital laboratories rather than at the state laboratory. She said DOH does not have comprehensive numbers of who have been tested or the number of pending tests.


Sec. Levine noted that teams are working to see how each positive case became exposed to the virus. She asserted that DOH has been able to trace exposure for the majority of cases. With the increase in testing by hospitals and commercial laboratories, she commented that DOH is less able to track all of the exposures. She said, “We can assume that there are people whose exposure we cannot trace back to a known source, and we are not yet seeing what is called sustained community spread.” Remarking on Governor Tom Wolf’s recent measures, she noted that DOH anticipates the occurrence of sustained community spread in Pennsylvania.


Sec. Levine urged people to donate blood and remarked on precautionary measures put into place at blood banks. She commented that people can help by calling  seniors and donating to food banks. She emphasized that the Department of Aging and the Area Agencies on Aging (AAA) are assisting in providing services to seniors. With regards to mental health, Sec. Levine urged people with concerns to contact the crisis text line by texting “PA” to 741-741.


Sec. Levine reiterated steps to stop the spread of COVID-19:

  • Washing hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds
  • Using hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available
  • Covering coughs and sneezes with elbows
  • Refraining from touching one’s face
  • Cleaning surfaces frequently
  • Staying home if sick


Sec. Levine offered the DOH website as a source for the most reliable information regarding Pennsylvania’s response to COVID-19 and noted that DOH will also continue to provide updates through Facebook, Twitter, press releases, and press conferences. She said, “We have been updating providers on how to assess patients and with the current information about testing.”


Sec. Levine took questions from the media.


What is are essential and non-essential businesses, and how does a business determine that if they are unsure?

Neil Weaver, executive deputy secretary, Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED), noted that DCED has provided guidance on their website. He remarked that essential businesses are those that focus on the health and safety of Pennsylvania citizens. He listed essential businesses to include: food processing, agriculture, industrial manufacturers, feed mills, construction, trash services, convenience stores, grocery stores, stores that sell household goods, hardware stores, home repair stores, auto repair stores, pharmacies, biomedical and health care facilities, post offices, shipping outlets, insurance companies, banks, gas stations, laundromats, veterinary clinics, pet stores, warehousing, storage and distribution facilities, public transportation, and hotel and commercial lodging.


Weaver commented that non-essential businesses include public-facing industries such as entertainment, hospitality, and recreation facilities, including but not limited to community and recreation centers, gyms, including yoga, barre and spin facilities, hair salons and barber shops, nail salons and spas, casinos, concert venues, theaters, sporting event venues and golf courses, retail facilities, including shopping malls except for pharmacy or other health care facilities within retail operations. He noted that any business with questions should contact DCED at and look for updates on the website.


If hospitals experience shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE), will DOH be able to ship more from the federal government? If not, how will state hospitals address this problem?

Sec. Levine said that the epidemic will put strains on hospitals and health systems that have their own stores of PPE. She noted that if hospitals are running short, DOH also has stores. Additionally, she stated that the federal government has its own stores of PPE which the state can draw on if DOH is running out.


As there are plans for two mass testing sites in Philadelphia and Montgomery County, and who will be tested there?

Randy Padfield, director, Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA), responded that PEMA is looking at establishing federally-supported sites, one in Montgomery County and one in Philadelphia County. He noted that the goal of those sites is to test people who fall within a “certain symptom range and may have COVID-19.”


Will there be enforcement of businesses that stay open against the governor’s directive?

Weaver responded that DCED is asking businesses to “take a common-sense approach.”


What provisions has the state made for people who are dependent on alcohol with the impending closure of liquor stores at 9 p.m. tonight?

Sec. Levine said that she has a phone call scheduled with Jennifer Smith, secretary, Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs (DDAP), this afternoon to discuss the concerns and to come up with a plan.


How many public testing sites do you envision, where will they be, and how will they work?

Padfield said that they will be in Montgomery County and Philadelphia and will be based upon the federal drive-through model. He asserted that health care systems will consider adding additional testing sites as testing becomes more available.


If people are laid off because of COVID-19, will that count against the total time they can claim unemployment for the year?

Weaver responded that the Department of Labor and Industry (L&I) would be better able to answer that question.


What guidance has been given to dentists regarding COVID-19?

Sec. Levine stated that dentists are at “significant risk of exposure of COVID-19.” She noted that DOH has been working with the Pennsylvania state dentist to provide guidance which she said will be released this week.


How many Pennsylvania residents have been tested by private labs, and what is needed in order for them to get tested?

Sec. Levine responded that she does not have those statistics. She explained that at the two proposed sites, patients will be prioritized, such as health care workers and seniors. She asserted that if people have symptoms, they should call their health care provider.


Can you comment on the directive from Vice President Mike Pence’s asking construction companies to donate N95 respirators to hospitals?

Padfield asserted that this is a “plausible idea” which PEMA is reviewing and has investigated with their public-private partnership.


Have any National Guard units been called into service?

Padfield said that PEMA is working with the Pennsylvania National Guard and is reevaluating daily because the current situation is a very “dynamic situation.”


What do you say to patients who have mild symptoms and are told by physicians to stay home and not be tested?

Sec. Levine responded that DOH is recommending that people without symptoms stay home and not go out. She commented that someone with mild symptoms should stay home. While noting the importance of getting accurate numbers, she emphasized the need to “prevent the spread.”


What information are you getting from hospitals about the number of new patients and their capacity to treat them?

Sec. Levine said DOH is working with the Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania (HAP) to determine the capabilities of hospitals to ensure they have the equipment and supplies they need. She asserted that while there is not current “overtaxing,” DOH wants to prepare.


If a health care provider is concerned with how their employer is handling the situation, what should they do?

Sec Levine said it is important to notify the local health department which will work with DOH and DCED.


Are we seeing strain, and if not, when do you think it will come?

Sec. Levine stated that there is no strain at this time but would not be surprised at increasing numbers in the coming weeks.


Is community spread happening now in Montgomery County or nearby counties?

Sec. Levine said that there are a number of cases where DOH cannot determine how people were exposed. She said, “There is probable limited community spread of COVID-19 but not sustained community spread at this time. “

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