The Lead

Wolf administration focused on coordinating federal COVID-19 relief, not a statewide mandate

By: - January 11, 2022 2:12 pm

Gov. Tom Wolf wears a mask during a briefing at the Pennsylvania Emergency Management headquarters in Harrisburg. Source: Commonwealth Media Services.

As cases of the new, highly-transmissible omicron variant and hospitalizations continue to rise, the Wolf administration, with its limited emergency powers, is not considering any statewide masking or vaccine mandate.

They’re trusting Pennsylvanians to do what’s right, acting state Health Secretary Keara Klinepeter told reporters during a Tuesday press conference in Harrisburg, emphasizing the importance of getting vaccinated and boosted, testing, and masking in public.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began nearly two years ago, Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, enacted a statewide shutdown and mask mandate to help mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. He’s since had his emergency response powers curtailed, following a voter-approved constitutional change that limits the governor’s disaster declarations to 21 days and gives extension authority to the Legislature.

“We’ve always had the opinion that Pennsylvanians will do the right thing,” she said. “I think certainly the constitutional authorities that the governor, and that the secretary of health, have are different at this time, and we’ve certainly heard people’s perspective that they would like to be able to make local decisions. And so, that’s really what we’re leaning on — is for people in local places of authority to make good public health decisions.”

State data shows that nearly 75 percent of Pennsylvanians are vaccinated against COVID-19. And while the Wolf administration is waiting to see how the U.S. Supreme Court rules in the case against President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandate, particularly for healthcare workers, Klinepeter said state officials “are not considering further vaccine mandates at this time.”

The Biden administration recently approved a request from Wolf for additional relief for Pennsylvania medical facilities most affected by the surge in cases and hospitalizations. Two “strike teams” are already deployed at Wellspan York and Scranton Regional Hospital and helped make about 30 beds available. 

But those resources are “definitely not sufficient” to deal with existing hospitalizations, Klinepeter said.

The state Health Department expects Pennsylvania will see a peak in hospitalizations in early February, citing a two-week lag between cases and hospitalizations. Additional resources, including an anticipated four regional support sites, are expected to be operational next month, using existing healthcare infrastructure.

“We are still selecting where those sites will be,” Klinepeter said. “We’ll likely make that determination toward the end of this week based on this week’s data of both hospitalizations and case counts across the commonwealth.”

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