To slow the spread of the coronavirus, Pa. Gov. Tom Wolf ordered all non-life-sustaining businesses to close their physical locations March 19. York Daily Record
‘This pandemic has permanently altered the way we live,’ Wolf said. ‘We need to become accustomed to a new definition of the word “normal.” ‘
Gov. Tom Wolf, a York County Democrat, is leading the state through an unprecedented health crisis.
In the last week, he put in place stay-at-home orders for 19 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties and enforced closures of nonessential businesses.
These actions were designed to stop the spread of the deadly coronavirus, which as of Friday had killed 22 Pennsylvanians and infected 2,218 who tested posted positive for COVID-19.
As Wolf continues to make decisions that will become an important part of the state’s history, we practiced social distancing and caught up with him for a virtual Q&A.
How are you? How is your family?
We are doing well. Frances and I have socially distanced ourselves in our home. It’s challenging to be apart from our family, but the right thing to do.
When did you first become concerned about the coronavirus and the potential effect it could have in Pennsylvania? Can you walk us through what some of those early days were like?
We began monitoring the coronavirus shortly after we became aware of it at the beginning of the year. We began planning for its arrival and have built our strategies based on what worked and didn’t work in other places. This is when we started to plan for an epidemic for when it began to be clear that as nation we have a real crisis brewing.
It looks like you’ve been doing live updates from your home. Are you practicing what you preach and staying at home most of the day? Are you meeting with anyone in person? Are you relying on video and phone meetings? How is that working for you?
I am working remotely from Mount Wolf. All my meetings are conducted remotely unless absolutely necessary. We are fortunate to live during a time when we have many options for meeting remotely, and I am taking advantage of these options. I encourage all businesses to do the same.
Many Pennsylvanians are struggling out there. What do you want to say to people who are scared right now?
I recognize the burden this virus is placing on all of us. Both state and federal resources are being brought to bear to try to lighten this burden. But there is no denying that this fight is imposing real responsibilities along with real burdens on all of us, but I know we Pennsylvanians have what it takes to fight this battle.
We now have 19 counties with a shelter-in-place order. What would trigger that same order in other counties? What are you watching for that would make you put in additional shelter-in-place orders?
We look at the situation holistically rather than one data point, and we make decisions as information becomes available. In addition to the number of diagnoses, we’re also looking at data like the number and type of available hospital beds in the area and if the virus is spreading through community spread.
This is an evolving crisis. We have done somethings on a statewide basis, like schools and businesses and we’re doing somethings on a regional basis. We will continue to take a measured approach with our mitigation tactics.
How would you describe your conversations with President Trump and the White House task force? Is Pennsylvania getting sufficient help from the federal government?
We have had some assistance from the federal government, but we have also worked with neighboring states and local authorities within Pennsylvania. Viruses like this don’t recognize political boundaries. We’re all in this together.
What are the challenges you’re facing or that Pennsylvania is facing?
The biggest challenge in Pennsylvania is the same as other places – we have too few facilities to care for the number of critically ill if we have a surge in cases. And because this is happening so many places, we’re all competing for the same stockpile of materials. So, we’re becoming innovative. We’re retooling what we have within our borders to create what we need.
What seems to be working?
Social distancing. And, it’s the only thing that will work. We must prevent people from contracting COVID-19.
Pennsylvanians are smart and they’re strong. When I asked everyone to stay at home, most complied. Pennsylvanians know their actions don’t just help themselves, they help everyone else. And I thank each and every one of them for doing their part during this crisis.
Some governors have talked about a point of no return in their states. Is there a point of no return in Pennsylvania? If so, when is it?
We have not established such a point, but we also began strong mitigation efforts relatively early. We are optimistic that these efforts will allow us to avoid the surges seen in other states and countries. But for us to avoid this surge, every person needs to continue to do their part to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Many Pennsylvania medical workers are worried about supplies and whether they will be able to get care at hospitals if they need it. We know there is a national supply shortage. How do we fix this problem in Pennsylvania?
This is a real problem. We are trying to deal with it by gathering the materials we think we’ll need, as well as expand the number of available hospital beds and healthcare workers in all parts of our state. Even with these materials, we still need everyone to help us flatten the curve by slowing the spread. The best way to ensure everyone who needs care can get it is to have as few people sick at the same time. That’s why we need everyone to stay home unless they absolutely must go out.
How has your business experience informed your decision-making in this crisis? How do you relate to the business owners who have had to close? What do you know that might help with supply chains and manufacturing the products we need now?
My business experience has provided me with insight on just how critical a role the business community will play in getting us through this crisis. We need businesses to step up and provide us with the materials we need to assist health care workers. But we also need businesses to do the right thing and recognize that their role might be to close physical operations to prevent the virus from sweeping through their facilities. Ultimately, our workers are our greatest asset, and we must do everything we can to work together to keep them safe.
President Trump has recently said the cure can’t be worse than the problem itself. He’s facing a dilemma about prioritizing the economy or public health. Where do you stand on this issue?
Human lives are irreplaceable. We can reinvigorate our economy. I must first save lives, then I will save livelihoods.
We’ve already unrolled new programs to assist businesses and workers affected by the shutdown, and we are continuing to identify other ways to help. We will continue to provide support to business and workers, especially as we come to understand the full impact of COVID-19 on the economy. But first we must survive.
The president also said he wants the country to open up again by Easter. Will Pennsylvania be ready to open again by then? Will the stay-at-home orders and business closures end by then? Will kids be back to school?
We are taking this day by day, making decisions as we receive new information. The health and safety of Pennsylvanians must be my highest priority. If the information is telling us that rolling back restrictions will endanger the lives of Pennsylvanians, then they will stay in place.
What do you say to people who want to know when we can get back to normal?
We’ll go back to work when it’s clear that we’ll be able to survive going back to work. This pandemic has permanently altered the way we live. We need to become accustomed to a new definition of the word “normal.”
What should we be telling our readers right now? What do they need to know to stay safe?
We all need to work together to give our healthcare system the capacity to treat this disease. So please continue to listen to the guidance of Dr. (Rachel) Levine, especially her call to stay calm, stay home and stay safe. If you must go out, remember to cover coughs or sneezes with your elbow or a tissue, clean surfaces frequently, and wash your hands and use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer often. With COVID-19, it is just as important to stop yourself from spreading it to another person as it is to take precautions against contracting it, so please be mindful of the impact your actions will have on everyone in your community.
Candy Woodall is a reporter for the USA Today Network. She can be reached at 717-480-1783 or on Twitter at @candynotcandace.
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