WILKES-BARRE — When it comes to Gov. Tom Wolf’s plan on reopening Pennsylvania’s economy, a Wilkes University business professor says Harrisburg “has moved the goal posts.”
Justin C. Matus, Ph.D., FACHE, Associate Professor/Sidhu School of Business, said the original narrative was to flatten the curve to buy time/not flood the hospitals.
“We have done that,” Matus said. “No one ever said we could stop the spread, but now they are acting as if the goal is to completely stop the spread at all costs.’
Matus noted that “we now have a level of herd immunity — we now have testing, we now have PPE, social distancing and masks.
“We are also using a very crude set of benchmarks to decide when a county gets opened,” Matus said. “Rural counties likely have fewer cases reported because rural residents are less likely to get tested if they have to drive 15 miles to get tested. Rural counties have fewer doctors per square mile, hospital beds per square mile, etc., etc. Yet conversely, urban areas are just the opposite — more beds per 100,00 population, more doctors per 100,000 etc. etc., meaning urban counties are much, much better prepared in many ways than rural counties.”
Matus said supply chains have also increased — ventilators, progress on treatment with drugs such as Remdesivir, progress on vaccines. He said local hospitals “are nowhere near capacity” and are resuming elective procedures.
“Clearly there are lots of moving parts ,” Matus continued, “but we both know the economy is being destroyed. This shutdown will soon result in the lost generation if we don’t get back up on our feet.”
Matus said the recovery will not be a one-for-one timeline — shut down a week, one week to bounce back.
“We are at the point where each additional day of shut down will require at least 5 or 6 months to recover the loss — if even possible as businesses go under,” Matus said.
The Wolf plan
Balancing economic benefits and public health risks are the key parts of Gov. Tom Wolf’s plan to reopen counties — 37 so far — moving them from red to yellow beginning at 12:01 a.m., Friday, May 8.
“Over the past two months, Pennsylvanians in every corner of our commonwealth have acted collectively to stop the spread of COVID-19,” Wolf has said. “We have seen our new case numbers stabilize statewide and while we still have areas where outbreaks are occurring, we also have many areas that have few or no new cases.”
The 37 counties were deemed ready to move to a reopening because of low per-capita case counts, the ability to conduct contact tracing and testing, and appropriate population density to contain community spread.
The administration partnered with Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) to create a Risk-Based Decision Support Tool that enables decision makers to strike a balance between maximizing the results of the economy while minimizing public health risks.
The CMU tool looked at the impacts of risk factors such as reported number of COVID cases per population of an area; ICU and medical/surgical bed capacity; population density; population over age 60; re-opening contact risk, such as the number of workers employed in a currently closed industry sector.
The CMU metrics were considered along with the county’s or region’s ability to conduct testing and contact-tracing to first and foremost maintain robust public health.
Wolf has stressed the need for all Pennsylvanians to now, more than ever, take personal responsibility for their actions.
“Every human-to-human contact is a chance for the virus to spread, so more contacts mean a higher likelihood of an outbreak,” Wolf said. “If we see an outbreak occur in one of the communities that has been moved to yellow, we will need to take swift action, and revert to the red category until the new case count falls again. So, Pennsylvanians living in a county that has been moved to the yellow category should continue to strongly consider the impact of their actions.”
Counties that will remain under the stay-at-home order will be considered for reopening in the next several weeks as the state continues to closely monitor metrics and collaborate with CMU, health experts and counties.
Sen. Yudichak comments
On Friday, Sen. John Yudichak Friday said counties, like Luzerne, will not get a fair shake when it comes to upgrading their designation from “red” to “yellow” because the data being used is not being done through a collaborative, transparent process.
Yudichak said the state legislature has been excluded from this decision-making process, as has the public and the media. He said the result has been a lack of accountability and a lack of transparency, and a lack of credibility.
Yudichak cited comments of Dr. Steven Shapiro, UPMC Chief Medical Officer, recently made that “social isolation needs to wind down.”
Shapiro said he was concerned that the longer social isolation is mandated, the mental health consequences of loneliness, and economic devastation will increase.
Shapiro added that doesn’t mean social distancing or other mitigation practices need to go away, adding that it could be a while before large gatherings are a good idea.
Shapiro said he generally supports the governor’s phased reopening in Pennsylvania, but thinks the worst of this wave of the virus is behind us.
Yudichak noted that businesses that have been allowed to remain open as “essential,” have acted safely and responsibly. He said other businesses can open and institute the same procedures.
Yudichak said the key is for everyone to be responsible and protect the public safety.