Wolf administration announces plans to tackle fall COVID-19 surge

Pennsylvania Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine speaks during a news conference on 10/14/20 (screen capture)

On Wednesday, as Pennsylvania recorded more than 1,000 new cases of coronavirus for the ninth straight day, the Wolf administration addressed the fall resurgence of COVID-19 along with increased testing capabilities, plans for a potential vaccine, and guidelines for navigating a possible twindemic.

“With the data that we have just reported, we believe that we are at the start of the fall resurgence,” Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine said, during a briefing at the  Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency’s headquarters in suburban Harrisburg. “And we have been talking about a potential fall resurgence and preparing for that for months.”

While the Pennsylvania healthcare system is still reporting high amounts of capacity at its facilities, Dr. Levine and Testing and Contact Tracing Director Michael Huff stressed that it is unknown how much COVID-19 could surge this fall.

“The situation is fluid and guidance could change over time,” Huff said.

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Pennsylvania will receive over 3.8 million Abbott BinaxNOW antigen rapid tests through the end of December courtesy of the federal government. The Health Department has already received the first allocation of tests.

“Weekly distribution will occur to counties that are deemed substantial risks as well as the top tier of moderate risks totaling six counties per week and prioritizes those counties that have current outbreaks,” Huff said.

Antigen tests are crucial in the fight to rapidly identify positive test results, Huff said.

“Although we are able to produce test results in 24-48 hours, near immediate test results would allow us to intervene even more quickly to protect these vulnerable individuals,” COVID-19 Response Director Wendy Braund said. “And these antigen test cards will do just that.”

The administration also highlighted other efforts to track the spread of coronavirus. 

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The mobile contact tracing app, COVID Alert PA, now has 300,000 users. Additionally, the state has more than 1,500 contact tracers throughout the state. Last week, the contact tracing management system, which integrates statewide contact tracing into one program, debuted, Huff said.

When it comes  to the long-awaited COVID-19 vaccine, the state health officials said they’ve  already been in talks with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) about distribution plans for a  vaccine when it is readily available.

“The CDC has provided a playbook for jurisdictions or states to aid in building plans for our vaccination distribution,” said Cindy Findley, Deputy Secretary for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention. “We have been utilizing this playbook to help formulate our distribution plan.”

The Health Department will submit its plan this week. Because the vaccine will be distributed in phases when it becomes available, the plan will be a living document, according to Findley. This plan has already been reviewed by an internal task force and external partners.

While COVID-19 is a priority for Pennsylvania health officials this fall, flu season has not flown under the radar. In fact, state officials are worried about the potential of dealing with two outbreaks at once.

“The flu is a major concern for us this fall,” said Ray Barishansky, Deputy Secretary for Health Preparedness and Community Protection. “While the addition of COVID-19 adds complexity to our overall operations, we started preparing for the 2020-2021 flu season early.”

Pennsylvania health officials are recommending that those aged six months and older receive their flu vaccination now. 

The state annually shares flu activity data on its website www.health.pa.gov every Tuesday during the season.

“Yesterday was the first report for the 2020-2021 flu season,” Barishansky said. “The safety and health of Pennsylvanians is our number one concern.”

The COVID-19 pandemic is rapidly evolving, and Levine said that it is impossible to predict the future., However, she did indicate that there are no immediate plans for guideline changes.

“We have no plans to have any further business restrictions and stay at home orders at this time,” Levine said.

Kenny Cooper, a Temple University graduate, is a Hearken Election SOS fellow, assisting the Capital-Star in covering the 2020 election. Follow him on Twitter @Kenny_Cooper_Jr.