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By Harrison Cann, Pennsylvania Legislative Services | March 24, 2020


Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine provided an update on the novel coronavirus, known as COVID-19, during a video press conference this afternoon.

Sec. Levine began by announcing that as of 12 a.m. this morning Pennsylvania has 207 new cases of COVID-19, which brings the statewide total to 851. She noted that the virus is now in 40 counties and that about 10 percent of people, 70 Pennsylvanians, have required hospitalization since the first case was found on March 6. She added that 8,643 people have tested negative and that seven people have died as a result of the virus. She continued that two deaths have occurred in both Allegheny and Northampton Counties and that Lackawanna, Monroe and Montgomery Counties have each had one death too.

Sec. Levine stated that she expects to see the numbers to continue to increase each day and that it underscores the need for everyone to stay home. She recognized that it is an “uncertain time for all of us” but that if people want to contribute they can donate blood at a local blood donation center or donate food at a local food pantry. She stressed that blood donation centers have urgent requests for donations and that more will be needed as health systems prepare for a surge in hospitalizations.

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

  • 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, and
  • staying home if sick.

Sec. Levine asserted that practicing these measures can slow the spread of COVID-19. She urged people to contact their health care provider with questions about their health. With regard to mental health, she stated that people can contact the crisis text line by texting “PA” to 741-741. She noted that the most reliable information related to Pennsylvania’s response to COVID-19 can be obtained at the Department of Health (DOH) website. Concluding, she stressed that the most important thing to remember is to “stay calm, stay home, and stay safe.”

Sec. Levine then answered questions submitted electronically by media members.

Is there a percentage of cases we could consider a significant turn of events, either upwards or downwards?

Sec. Levine responded that Pennsylvania is continuing to see an exponential rise and that the state’s number of cases is doubling about every two to three days. She added that these are the same increases being seen throughout the country. She noted that there is some variability in when test results come back but that it is often the same. She stated that given all the factors there is still an exponential increase and it will continue to be that way. She continued that the virus is still spreading through communities and that it remains a public health crisis. She then stressed the purpose of mitigation strategies to prevent the large surge of cases from overwhelming the health care system.

How many patients have recovered?

Sec. Levine responded that the number of cases, hospitalizations, intensive care admissions and more are tracked but the number of people that have recovered is not tracked.

Is there a target number of beds that hospitals need to reach?

Sec. Levine responded that DOH is working with hospitals, health systems and other partners to prepare for the surge in hospitalizations. She added that there are a number of parameters, including beds for the continuity of care and space for increasing beds. She stated that hospitals can expand the number of beds without having to get permission from DOH and that they are looking to repurpose ambulatory centers and hotels to treat others. She continued that they are also ensuring that adequate medical personnel and supplies are available to take care of patients.

What is the status of converting hotels, conference centers and other public places to hospital spaces?

Sec. Levine responded that those plans are in the works in the hardest-hit areas. She added that some companies are able to convert hotel rooms for patient care and that those places would be for subacute patients to rest and recuperate.

What is the status of procuring ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPE)?

Sec. Levine responded that hospitals and health systems have their stores of PPE and that DOH has its own stores. She added that DOH is being replenished by the federal government and that many manufacturers have called about making masks and ventilators. She noted that the state is purchasing ventilators, working with companies to repurpose manufacturing for masks, and looking to purchase masks from other states and countries.

Do you expect rural counties to see the spread of cases and stay-in-home orders?

Sec. Levine responded that they do not expect the same number of cases in rural areas because of population density but that they do expect spread in all areas. She added that they reevaluate every day what needs to be done and that the governor will take all necessary precautions to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Patients are having trouble getting medications for conditions like lupus after President Trump suggested that the drug could be used to treat COVID-19. Are you considering following other states in restricting access for the drug or taking other steps to ensure those who need it are able to get it?

Sec. Levine responded that DOH is working with pharmacists to try and make sure patients are using the medications for accepted uses. She added that the issue has also been discussed with the Department of Human Services (DHS). She noted that some anecdotal evidence suggests that it could help with COVID-19 but it is not a standard of care. Sec. Levine emphasized that she does not recommend doctors prescribe it for outpatients or prevention because there is no evidence to support it. She stated that the right medication will be determined over time with testing and clinical trials but that right now the only recommended routine medications are acetaminophen, fluids, and rest.

Can you touch on the mental health resources available?

Sec. Levine responded that DOH has worked with DHS and the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs to make sure people have the mental health services they need during these “extremely stressful times.” She added that there is a hotline for anyone in crisis and that people have emotional needs that need to be met.

Is there any way to limit or restrict access of people from New York and New Jersey into Pennsylvania?

Sec. Levine responded that there are no federal or statewide plans to restrict travel.

Do you have any suggestions for the homeless that do not know where to go?

Sec. Levine responded that the administration’s working group is working with large communities to find needs for the homeless. She added that they want to make sure homeless populations have a place to shelter and have their needs met.

How long is it taking to turn around test results?

Sec. Levine responded that DOH is prioritizing its laboratory for health care personnel and individuals in intensive care and vulnerable groups. She added that many hospitals and health systems have developed their own tests and commercial laboratories like Quest and LabCorp are able to do their own testing. She noted that DOH’s waiting period for results is up to 24 hours and that hospitals have about the same time period. She said that some commercial laboratories have a backlog and could take a number of days to get results but that she is willing to work with them to limit the wait.

Is the state subtracting the number of deaths away from the total number of cases?

Sec. Levine responded that they are not.

Are county numbers based on where they reside or where they are being treated?

Sec. Levine responded that it is counted where the person resides. She noted that some county numbers have changed because further investigations have found that a patient may have been hospitalized in a different county than where their residence is.

Are we now seeing sustained community spread across the state?

Sec. Levine responded that Pennsylvania is seeing sustained community spread in southeast counties and Allegheny County, which are all of the counties that were included in the stay-at-home order.

What is the last request you made to the federal government and what was the response?

Sec. Levine responded that the last request was for PPE and that the materials were received from the national stockpile.

Are nursing home and other medical personnel in a different testing queue?

Sec. Levine responded that it is critical for health care personnel to get tested if they show symptoms. She stated that those medical personnel are considered priority and would have to be tested right away to see if their contacts within the health system need to be seen. She continued that the priority is given to them because of the potential consequences of them being positive.

What are the criteria DOH has set for dentists to perform emergency procedures?

Sec. Levine responded that DOH put out dental guidelines that were consistent with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and that there were challenges associated with that. She added that many dentists have concerns and that there is an internal meeting taking place this afternoon to discuss those issues and determine the right way forward.

Have there been any discussions about reopening Hahnemann Hospital in Philadelphia to increase capacity?

Sec. Levine responded that there are discussions about opening up other closed facilities to serve the health care needs in the whole continuum of care. She added that Hahnemann is unlikely to be used because it has been empty for six months, so it would be challenging to utilize, but that it is up to the Philadelphia health commissioner.

Hospitals are asking people to sew masks and donate fabric. Do they need homemade masks?

Sec. Levine responded that N95 masks are required for people directly caring for patients with COVID-19. She added that sewing personal masks is not sufficient protection but it is better than nothing. She then stressed that people should not “have a false sense of security” with a homemade mask and that people need to stay home.

Easton Hospital says it needs $40 million or it will need to close its doors. Is the state going to provide support to keep the hospital open?

Sec. Levine responded that there are ongoing conversations about Easton Hospital and how it can be helped but that she does not have an answer at this time.

Is testing the same for hospital and commercial labs?

Sec. Levine responded that all of those tests have been approved. She stated that hospital and health systems using their own laboratories are approved and that all commercial tests are equivalent too.

Could medical centers in rural areas receive patients from other parts of the state?

Sec. Levine responded that they could if it was needed but that she would rather not transport patients if it is not absolutely necessary.

How many new tests can DOH process each day and are there difficulties in obtaining tests?

Sec. Levine responded that DOH can conduct about 100 tests a day and that materials come from the federal government. She added that there have been challenges at times in requesting supplies but that they have always received them when they needed them.

Have there been any cases reported in nursing homes?

Sec. Levine responded that there have been cases reported in a nursing home but she is not sharing information regarding the specific facility. She noted that DOH and county health departments are assisting in those cases.

What is the threshold for a statewide stay-at-home order?

Sec. Levine responded that if DOH, senior staff, and the governor have evidence of community spread and concerns about increases in the area then the governor would make a determination and work with local authorities in issuing an order.

Does the president have any authority over state government on pulling back restrictions?

Sec. Levine responded that they are not looking to pull back restrictions. She emphasized Pennsylvania’s three-pronged strategy to mitigate spread, practice social distancing, and track cases through testing. She stated that it is “far too early” to change those prevention and mitigation orders but that she will leave it to attorneys to decide between federal and state regulations.

President Trump says he believes the country will be back to work by Easter. Do you believe this?

Sec. Levine responded that there is every reason to believe the numbers will continue to rise. She stated that she is hopeful that mitigation and prevention efforts will cut off the peak so the surge is not too high. She added that it is hard to predict things a month out so the conversation will be taken day-by-day and week-by-week.

How much PPE has been received from the federal government and how will it be allocated?

Sec. Levine responded that Pennsylvania has received PPE and masks from the federal government and that they are allocated based on local and regional hospital needs.

How can reports of workers being forced to meet in person or work while sick be addressed?

Sec. Levine responded that she would not recommend people visit clients person-to-person, especially in counties with the stay-at-home order. She added that people can telework but that anyone working in food preparation that is feeling sick should stay home, not unlike any other time.

Rep. Torren Ecker (R-Adams) is asking the governor to ask for construction jobs to be added to the life-sustaining list. Are they considering expansion?

Sec. Levine responded that she is focusing on the public health response and that the Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED) is working on business closures and waivers.

Should gun shop owners be included on the list too?

Sec. Levine responded that she is not part of developing the list.

Can you clarify the interplay between the stay-at-home order and non-life-sustaining business closure order?

Sec. Levine responded that those orders are separate. She stated that someone working in a life-sustaining business can go to that job, but those in the affected counties should stay at home to protect themselves and their community.


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