With vote to reopen Pa. looming, Pa. Health Secretary Levine again urges caution

Pa. Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine during a briefing on Tuesday, 4/14/20 (screen capture)

With lawmakers in the state House and Senate poised to vote on bills aimed at reopening some segments of Pennsylvania’s economy, the commonwealth’s top public health official warned Tuesday against moving too hastily, and appeared to indicate that a lifting of business closing and stay at home orders could still be weeks away.

In an online news briefing, state Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said it could take until this summer before the state is equipped to meet one key prerequisite that’s needed to make decisions about reopening the state.

Levine has said the state will need to move to population-based surveillance tracking to relax social distancing orders. Asked how many tests would be needed daily to perform that kind of tracking, the health secretary said she’d “love to have that type of widespread testing available,” but, “right now it’s difficult to access chemicals and reagents.”

“We’re not sure the widespread testing will be available. I’m hopeful we’ll have it in the summer and later in the summer to do that … testing,” she said.

The latest on COVID-19 in Pa.: 25,345 confirmed cases in 67 counties

As of midday Tuesday, health officials had confirmed 25,345 positive cases of COVID-19 in all 67 of Pennsylvania’s counties. So far, 584 people, all adults, have died of the disease.

Levine said Monday that, thanks to social distancing and other mitigation efforts, the state had successfully flattened the curve on new infections. There were 1,146 new, positive cases on Tuesday, state data indicated, compared to 1,336 cases in the 24 hours previously.

Levine said Tuesday that she’s been encouraged by the progress to date, but stressed, as she has for several days, that the state isn’t there yet.

“We have been able to flatten the curve in new cases we are seeing It’s still too many, but the curve has been flattened significantly,” she said. “We are doing a fantastic job … When the time is right, we will make that decision.”

Asked how bills now pending before the Legislature that would reopen some parts of the state’s economy might fare if they reach Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk, Levine only said that “The governor will address that legislation if and when it passes.”

Levine told reporters to “stay tuned,” when asked if the administration might follow the lead of New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, who signed an executive order last week requiring grocery stores and other retailers to indefinitely limit the number of customers allowed in their stores to no more than 50 percent of their capacity. He also ordered all customers and employees to wear masks, according to NorthJersey.com.

Some Pennsylvania grocery stores have already moved to limit capacity. And right now, the state has urged Pennsylvanians to wear masks when they need to go out to buy groceries or pick up prescription. So far, that guidance remains voluntary.

John L. Micek
John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. He's been covering Pennsylvania politics for more than 20 years and most recently served as Opinion Editor at PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa. Micek's commentary is syndicated to more than 800 newspapers nationwide by Cagle Syndicate. And he's a regular contributor to a host of broadcast outlets in Pennsylvania and abroad.