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2020 News

Commissioners Defend Push for Flexibility in Wolf Reopening Strategy

May 7, 2020

Contact: Larry R. King, 215-348-6413, lrking@buckscounty.org

As Gov. Tom Wolf once again extended his stay-at-home order for Bucks and other counties still shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Bucks County Commissioners today re-stated their belief that Wolf’s standards for reopening should be more flexible.

During a virtual news conference this afternoon, the commissioners and Health Director Dr. David Damsker said the county may be a lot closer to being able to safely reopen than state officials are willing to acknowledge.

“What’s really important to look at is who gets sick and why,” Damsker said. “And so the number of 50 per 100,000 is arbitrary.”

Damsker was referring to a guideline set out by Wolf that before reopening, counties show a decreasing number of new coronavirus cases and average less than 50 cases per 100,000 persons over the course of 14 days. For Bucks, that would mean an average of 23 new cases per day over a two-week span, a level not seen since late March.

At the same time, the county’s aggressive contact tracing efforts have documented a steady decrease in the amount of new community spread cases, which have consistently averaged less than 10 per day.

Wolf last week announced that 24 counties meeting his standards would be allowed to partially reopen on Friday, moving them from “red” shutdown status to “yellow” status, in which most businesses and daycares can open under certain safety restrictions. At the same time, the governor is expected to announce additional counties that can move from red to yellow next week. Bucks is not expected to be among them.

“We are closer to yellow than the metric of 50 per 100,000 would allow us to be,” Damsker said.

For weeks, the lion’s share of Bucks County’s new infections and deaths have been among residents of long-term care facilities and, to a lesser degree, people who work in them.

Those are among the cases Bucks officials would like to see excluded from Wolf’s calculations, while placing a greater emphasis on declining community spread. But even those long-term care numbers are showing signs of declining, Damsker said.

“Right now we are on the tail end of the nursing home outbreaks,” he said. “At Neshaminy Manor, where 77 residents have tested positive, many of those residents are recovering…they are doing just fine.”

Other nursing homes are showing similar signs of stabilizing, with residents recovering and staff returning to work after being sick, Damsker said. “We’re still having some issues at the nursing homes, no question about it, but I think we are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel with regard to the outbreaks,” he said.

The commissioners took umbrage at suggestions by others, including some elected officials, that their urging of Wolf to place less emphasis on infection numbers in congregate living facilities suggested a lack of concern for the frail and elderly.

“As one who has a mother in a county nursing home, I’m offended,” Commissioners’ Chair Diane M. Ellis-Marseglia said. “It isn’t that we don’t care, and it wasn’t that we didn’t necessarily want numbers from nursing homes to count. We wanted the metric to change.”

“We care about every single person in every nursing home,” added Commissioner Gene DiGirolamo. “Any suggestion that we don’t care is just absurd, it really is. We do care, and we grieve along with the families.”

In a letter sent April 29 to Wolf, the commissioners, Damsker and other county officials urged the governor “to decrease the specific reliance on the incidence rate of COVID-19, per capita, as a major contributing factor to reopening.”

Strict adherence to the governor’s numerical guidelines, the letter said, could permanently mire the county in red status, having “a detrimental effect on our effort to maintain Bucks County’s infrastructure of business, tourism and community support.”

The full letter can be viewed here: https://tinyurl.com/y9y5lbqn  Neither Wolf nor his staff has responded to it directly.

Commissioner Bob Harvie predicted that surrounding counties might also start questioning Wolf’s metrics soon, and said Bucks County has solid data to support its position.

“We’re doing a tremendous amount of contact tracing that’s giving us a lot of very valuable data,” Harvie said. “And that data that other counties don’t necessarily have is telling us what’s happening with the virus. You don’t gather this data simply to put it up on a screen, or to share it with the media or put it on the front page. You gather it because you’re using it to measure how this virus is behaving, the impact it is having on our community.

“What we’re seeing,” Harvie said, “is a real drop in community spread. The real issue is in sharing this data with the governor.”

Of 106 new positive cases reported today in Bucks County, only seven were attributed to community spread. Fifty-one are among residents or employees of long-term care facilities.

Twelve additional deaths were reported, ranging in age from 105 to 42, all with underlying health conditions. All but two lived in long-term care facilities, and all but two were over age 75.

A total of 300 Bucks County residents with COVID-19 have died. Of the 3,706 who have been infected, at least 986 have recovered and been released from isolation.

One hundred eighty-nine coronavirus patients are hospitalized in Bucks, including 20 in critical condition and on ventilators.   

Statistics, charts and other coronavirus-related information can be found on the county’s data portal: https://covid19-bucksgis.hub.arcgis.com.  An interactive Bucks County map showing numbers of active infections by municipality can be found here.

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