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With Lebanon County set to be the only remaining yellow phase county under the state’s guidelines starting Friday, Department of Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine has promised more novel coronavirus contact tracing and testing efforts on the way.
During a news conference outside Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center on Wednesday, Levine said they spent the weekend doing a “deep dive” of the details of cases in Lebanon County, which has seen a significant increase in COVID-19 cases in recent weeks and on Friday was the only county not to be announced as moving to the green phase of Gov. Tom Wolf’s reopening plan.
In the two weeks from June 11 to June 25, cases increased by 185, from 1,106 to 1,291.
“It is like most counties, a combination of community spread, and in terms of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities,” Levine said.
A Department of Health spokesperson said earlier in the week that cases in long-term care facilities in Lebanon increased by 93 in the two weeks between June 5 and June 19, when the decision to keep Lebanon in the yellow phase was announced. However, spokesperson Nate Wardle said even taking those cases into account, the increase was still higher than the previous 14-day period.
“Nursing homes and long-term care facilities essentially reflect the prevalence of the county, because it is the asymptomatic or presymptomatic staff that are the only ones entering the facility who unfortunately without them knowing it are able to carry it in,” Levine said Wednesday.
Levine said her department has worked with Lebanon County Commissioners – who voted 2-1 in May to move the county from the red to yellow phase against the state’s orders – to discuss how to help the county move to the green phase. The department has developed a plan to increase testing in Lebanon County and enhance contact tracing, Levine said.
Positivity test rate decreasing
With 2,280 tests performed in the two weeks between June 11 and June 25, Lebanon recorded a positive test rate of 8.11 percent in that time frame, meaning Lebanon is meeting the required metric of having a positivity rate under 10% in the previous 14 days.
Overall, Lebanon’s positivity case rate for its total amount of COVID-19 cases is 14.27%.
However, according to the state’s dashboard for counties, Lebanon still has not met the required metric for moving to the green phase of having stable, decreasing or low confirmed case weeks in the past two weeks compared to the previous two weeks.
In the two weeks from May 29 to June 11, Lebanon recorded an increase of 162 cases and 1,202 tests, with a positivity rate of 11.88%.
“We’ll be watching the data really closely and when the numbers have shown … that the numbers of new cases are decreasing, then they’ll be able to move to green,” Levine said.
No rebellion in Lebanon – yet
In early May, Lebanon County elected GOP officials sent a letter to Wolf, informing him they were moving the county to the yellow phase of reopening, even though the state had not yet determined they met the guidelines.
Lebanon County District Attorney Pier Hess Graf announced she would not prosecute businesses who reopened to yellow phase guidelines, though she clarified she could not protect them from consequences to their business licenses.
The next week, Republican commissioners Bill Ames and Bob Phillips voted to officially move county operations to the yellow phase. Though the commissioners did not have the authority to move business operations to the yellow phase, they encouraged businesses to do so at their own risk. Democratic commissioner Jo Ellen Litz voted against the measure.
The actions drew support from many across the state, but drew criticism from Levine, who said in a statement last Friday that Lebanon County “hindered” its progress by reopening too early.
“Lebanon County’s partisan, politically driven decision to ignore public health experts and reopen prematurely is having severe consequences for the health and safety of county residents,” Levine said. “Case counts have escalated and the county is not yet ready to be reopened. Lebanon County has hindered its progress by reopening too early. Because of this irresponsible decision, Lebanon County residents are at greater risk of contracting COVID-19.”
The state’s decision to keep Lebanon in the yellow phase angered many, including Republican State Reps. Frank Ryan, Sue Helm and Russ Diamond, as well as state Sen. Dave Arnold, also a Republican, who issued a letter encouraging residents to ignore the governor.
Diamond and Ryan reiterated their position when reached this week. Diamond declined to share whether they planned to take any actions similar to what they did to move Lebanon to the yellow phase in May.
Ryan pointed out that many people in Lebanon regularly travel outside the county to areas now in the green phase in the course of their normal routines anyway.
“What good does it do to say one is yellow and one is green?” Ryan said.
Lebanon Valley Chamber of Commerce CEO Karen Groh asked a similar question in a letter to Wolf on Tuesday, saying residents are having to travel to nearby counties to get services not yet allowed to be open in Lebanon.
“Our chamber members and the business community are frustrated in the continued delay in getting back to business as the majority have followed the guidance from the state and the CDC,” Groh wrote.
For his part, commissioner Ames, who along with Litz and Phillips spoke with Levine by phone on Tuesday, agreed that keeping Lebanon in yellow while its neighbors move to green doesn’t make sense.
Ames and Phillips both said they were disappointed in the state’s decision. Phillips said Wednesday they are working with local entities like WellSpan Good Samaritan Hospital and the Lebanon County Community Health Council to get Lebanon’s case numbers into green phase territory.
Phillips said he did not have any plans at the moment to buck the state’s guidelines as they did when moving Lebanon from the red to yellow phases in May.
“The numbers need to be where they need to be according to them,” Phillips said. “There’s no plan to do anything but try to get us into the green, according to the guidelines.”
Nora Shelly can be reached at 717-454-7817 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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