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Prepping for surge

The Penn Highlands Healthcare health system, which serves Penn Highlands Huntingdon, continues to prepare and brace themselves for more cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, and will continue to do what they can to make people safe.

Clearfield County, where the Penn Highlands Healthcare hub is located in DuBois, had its first confirmed COVID-19 case, and Shaun Sheehan, director of the COVID-19 task force, noted in a conference call update Tuesday that the patient is currently not in a Penn Highlands Healthcare facility, and all measures are being taken to protect staff, patients and the community at this time.

Also during Tuesday’s call, Mark Norman, chief operating officer for Penn Highlands Healthcare, thanked the entire staff for their dedication under what he called, “unique and trying circumstances,” as well as the communities where hospitals and other facilities are located.

“Everyone has worked together to try to manage the situation,” he said. “I also want to thank the community. We’ve had so many people reach out to us.”

He named just one example where the DuBois Area School District has donated N-95 masks, surgical masks and other equipment needed.

“It’s great to see the community pride,” said Norman. “Are communities are resilient. Together, we will make it through this period.”

Norman also discussed the fact that a COVID-19 task force was implemented earlier this month to tackle the challenges the health system will face as a result of this highly contagious coronavirus.

“We are prepared for this situation,” he said. “Our top priority at Penn Highlands is to keep our patients safe.”

He also acknowledged the additional measures regarding visitor restrictions in the wake of COVID-19.

For Penn Highlands Huntingdon specifically, if patients are experiencing symptoms, they should call their primary care provider, and those without one should call the PHH Call Center at 814-375-6644 between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays.

Those who do qualify will give a code to patients to go to a QCareNow app for additional screening, and those without smartphones, tablets or computers will have arrangements made to talk via telephone to a provider. At that point, a provider will further determine if a patient should be tested and create a testing order.

If a patient does need testing, they will then go to the QuickLab on the Penn Highlands Huntingdon campus, and arrangements will be made to keep patients outside and in vehicles. No walk-in testing will be accepted.

He also noted that they are educating staff on personal protection equipment and how to properly use it, and they’ve been implementing self monitoring for staff.

“This includes temperature checks and we’re canceled elective surgical procedures,” he said. “We’ve also canceled support groups and public events as well non-essential meetings. Essential meetings are done by teleconference.”

Norman stressed the importance of donating blood in this critical time, as well as critical supplies needed to prepare for any volume surge of patients due to COVID-19.

Items they are asking for donations of include N-95 respirator masks, face masks, surgical masks, exam gloves, isolation gowns, head covers, shoe covers and Sani-Cloth wipes.

“If anyone knows of anyone who is willing to help, please let us know,” he said.

Sheehan said they continue to make decisions based on the guidance from the state Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control.

As far as testing, only around 100 tests have been performed thus far throughout the entire health system, all tests that have come back thus far, except for one, were negative.

A new test has just come online for the laboratories used by Penn Highlands Healthcare that will net faster results, but the test is limited.

“It’s a short test, which we will have results in 48 hours,” he said, noting the previous test concluded results wouldn’t come back for 7-9 days.

“We are still following the DOH and CDC guidelines for testing, and they are tiered guidelines,” said Sheehan. “We’re currently limited by the number of tests we can perform, so it’s important to follow the current recommendations. If you have symptoms, you need to stay home, contact your primary care physician and follow the recommendations. Not everyone needs to come and get a test. Only individuals who qualify under the guidelines will receive a test.”

Norman said that in a staffing standpoint, people can be moved from some areas to other areas, as elective procedures have been canceled, to places where they’re needed as patient volumes in facilities fluctuate.

While they currently have enough personal protection equipment, Norman said they are conducting an analysis of how long that would last before supplies dwindle.

“We continue to add to inventory as we can,” he said. “We’ll have a better idea in a day or two.”

Sheehan said they’ve also found ways to secure additional ventilators and repurpose current machines in operating rooms to use as ventilators as needed.

“We have the ability to expand capacity,” said Sheehan. “That’s a great thing.”

Sheehan said current patient volumes are down throughout the entire Penn Highlands Healthcare system, which is a good thing if patient volume surges as a result of COVID-19.

For details on how to make a donation of personal protective equipment, visit www.phhealthcare.org/news/penn-highlands-healthcare-news/penn-highlands-healthcare-welcomes-medical-supply-donations?fbclid=IwAR3254jSFX6FFuemYGepsdf-EwVPg3M0XPxKnP_ZwFFTg5HBFBpM7BeBP-A.

Pandemic impacts food pantries

Food pantries in Huntingdon County have seen an increase in need while they are stepping up efforts to reduce the possibility of spreading the COVID-19 disease.

“Yes, we are seeing a bigger need,” said the Rev. Brian Myfelt of the First United Methodist Church in Mount Union who runs the Mount Union Food Pantry. “We had a few signups today from people who have been laid off. We’re running pretty efficiently otherwise.”

Although more people are coming in for help, the number of donations have decreased.

“As far as the donations themselves, we haven’t had a lot at the moment. The Elks Club told us they are trying to get a donation to us soon, but we aren’t getting as many of the walk-in donations. The various churches that would typically bring it along most are not meeting. Those are the major differences that we’ve noticed,” said Myfelt. “The Central PA Food Bank is trying to help us out by putting items on the free list, like eggs, milk and other things we normally have to purchase.”

Self-Declaration of Need forms have been temporarily waived for those visiting food pantries across the state to reduce contact.

“The state lifted requirements that visitors have to do signatures on self-declarations. What we’ve done at ours is we’re filling out paperwork and signing on their behalf which eliminates handling pens. Our food pantry is a pre-boxed pantry anyways, which helps.”

The Mount Union Food Pantry plans to remain open from 9-11 a.m. every Tuesday and produce is available every third Tuesday of the month.

“We’ve taken extra precautions with produce, so now you have to wear gloves to choose produce, and only four people at a time,” said Myfelt.

He noted that the easiest way to help is to send a financial donation to 15 W. Shirley St., Mount Union, so the pantry can then purchase food items from Sandy Ridge Market or the Central PA Food Bank.

At the Huntingdon Area Food Pantry, new practices are in place, too.

“We do all the paperwork outside and come and get the bags when they’re finished. It’s less contact that way,” said Jean Feagley, administrator of the pantry.

She expects that, “it’ll probably be about the same for our clients,” but she believes there won’t be a significant increase or decrease in donations.

Auxiliary Captain Philip Bender of the Huntingdon County Salvation Army has noticed a change of pace at their facility in Huntingdon.

“Everything is going on as normal, nothing has slowed down here as far as our operations. Many people have come in for food boxes, that has increased. People have been calling in and wondering if we’re still open and doing our social services. Unless we hear otherwise from the government, we will not be closing,” he said, reassuring the public he and his wife, Charity, also an auxiliary captain of the corps, are here to serve those in need.

Bender said folks are helping the Salvation Army, too.

“We’ve had some donations, and when this is over we’ll probably see more. A lot of people being out of work are holding on but there are folks who are helping us,” he said.”I think a lot of people are going to wait until dust has settled. Donations haven’t stopped, just slowed down a little, which we completely understand. Huntingdon has always done so well for us.”

The Salvation Army recently provided food for the Huntingdon Area School District Backpack Program for students in need, as well as the Juniata Valley area Backpack Blessings program.

Bender said that if any other school districts need assistance they can contact the Huntingdon County Salvation Army.

Overall, he is optimistic about the future and sees a strong local community.

“The Lord has given us strength during this time and the people coming in are very calm and very welcoming,” he said.

Nathan can be reached at nwoods@huntingdondailynews.com.


Joseph Tine of McAlevys Fort picked up an order from Brenneman’s Meat Market employee Chrysta Swanger in Smithfield Township this morning. The business has been asking customers to place their order by phone and pick up orders outside of the building in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The business is one of many locally that have taken steps to protect employees and customers.

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Residents urged to beware of scammers

When a society’s way of life is upended, there are inevitably those who seek to take advantage of the ensuing chaos to turn a profit.

Huntingdon County District Attorney David Smith believes scammers will be out in full force in the coming weeks.

“Obviously there will be a certain segment of society trying to scam people. I know law enforcement and government agencies are very concerned. Right now is a golden opportunity for these types of individuals to fleece the public,” he said.

Smith believes as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread, “miracle drugs” will begin to be peddled claiming to solve all health problems, along with a variety of other schemes designed to capitalize on the populace’s mounting anxiety.

“There is also a concern of scammers pretending to be a certain charity to gather money and I think also there’s a concern the stimulus package could result in someone posing as a government agency contacting you asking for your Social Security number and information,” he said. “There’s also a concern of scammers calling and requesting information pretending to be the CDC (Centers for Disease Control).”

The solution is a simple one.

“Use common sense. No one is going to call you out of the blue asking for your Social Security number,” said Smith. “If it’s too good to be true, it is. Don’t be pressured, you don’t have to do something immediately.”

Smith recommends the Federal Trade Commission’s website for valuable information on how to protect yourself from scams and what to do if you believe you’ve been the victim of one: www.ftc.gov.

He also recommends being leery of emails that advertise themselves as being from the government, as this is one way scammers “phish” for information or gain remote access to computers.

“If you think you’ve been a victim, change your username, password and you can contact identifytheft.gov,” said Smith.

Thankfully, federal and state government are likely to be cracking down on these types of criminal activities at a time when many U.S. citizens are already feeling vulnerable.

“I truly believe, given this unique challenge the country is under, the federal government and Attorney General’s office of Pennsylvania is going to make the prosecution of this type of thing a priority,” said Smith.

Nathan can be reached at nwoods@huntingdondailynews.com.