With the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 at SCI Huntingdon rising, with 51 inmates and 24 staff members now testing positive, the community response has grown from worry over what seems to be an outbreak to frustration that the numbers of the prison population could be what’s delaying the county from moving to the yellow phase of opening.
As of noon Monday, there were 58 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Huntingdon County. The state Department of Corrections (DOC) often updates confirmed cases in all of their facilities before it’s reflected in the county’s numbers the next day.
The DOC also didn’t update their numbers over the weekend, so those numbers reflect cases confirmed Saturday and Sunday.
In the case of staff members, their numbers are then reflected in their county of residence when the state Department of Health (DOH) updates them each day.
Though no questions were directly answered at Monday’s press briefing about exactly why the inmate numbers aren’t separated from those in the general population, state Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine did answer indirectly why cases at long-term facilities are included.
Levine explained a long-term care facilities are congregate settings, meaning it’s an environment where a number of people reside, meet or gather in close proximity for either a limited or extended period of time.
Other such examples of congregate settings where people reside include prisons, assisted living facilities and group homes.
“We’re not going to separate the nursing home cases from other cases, because we’re all interconnected,” she said. “One section of a community impacts the general community, and the staff goes back and forth within that community. It’s an example of how we’re all connected.”
This comes on the heels of all state representatives, including state Rep. Rich Irvin, state Sen. Jake Corman and state Sen. Judy Ward, citing a low case count and low population density as to why the county is unable to move to the yellow zone as of Friday, May 8.
This was all penned in a letter to Gov. Tom Wolf asking the administration to reconsider the decision to put Huntingdon County in the yellow zone.
In this letter, they say, “(Wolf’s) administration has consistently cited ‘data’ and ‘science’ as the most important factors when making decisions related to COVID-19. Again, the ‘data’ was used to justify re-opening 24 counties by moving them into the yellow phase. By comparison, Huntingdon County, fits the administration’s criteria for the yellow phase.
“Considering the data, we see no reason why Huntingdon County should not be permitted to move to the yellow phase. With a population of approximately 45,168, Huntingdon County has reported Just 56 cases of COVID-19. Zero of those cases have resulted in death. Several of the counties deemed ready to reopen by your administration have much higher per-capita case counts and greater population density. This decision lacks transparency and defies reason.”
However, according to the data as of May 1, Huntingdon County did not meet the state’s formula for opening again.
According to the formula, they divide the number of cases seen in a 14-day period by the county’s population, then multiply it by 100,000 to get the increase per 100,000 people over a 14-day period.
Fourteen days prior to Friday, May 1, there were 12 cases, so there was a 28-case increase in a 14-day period.
The math formula was to take the number of cases over a 14-day period, which is 28, divide that by 45,144, the population of the county as of the 2019 census, then multiply by 100,000.
This means there were 62 cases per 100,000 population in a 14-day time frame.
This doesn’t explain why neighboring Blair County didn’t move to the yellow zone as of Friday, May 8.
As of May 1, Blair County had 23 cases, but only had 14 cases 14 days ago, which is an increase of nine cases in a 14-day period. By dividing 9 by the population of the county, which is 121,829 as of the 2019 census, then multiplying by 100,000, that leaves seven cases per 100,000 population in 14-day period.
Nate Wardle, DOH spokesperson, later told The Daily News said the 24 counties that are moving to the yellow zone are doing so because, “These regions are moving from red to yellow now because of their size and geography of the population, the low rates of infection and our ability to do testing and contact tracing.
Successfully moving these regions from red to yellow will give us a good indication as to whether we can open other regions safely,” he added. “If there were to be an outbreak in a county in these regions, we are confident that we could control it through our contact tracing and testing plans. Some of those metrics being looked at include hospital bed availability, the status of long-term care facilities, the ability to conduct contact tracing, population density, etc.”
However, Wardle did note other regions are already being considered.
This is something Levine confirmed in a state Senate hearing Monday when pressed by Ward.
Ward asked Levine why they couldn’t take this county by county as opposed to by regions.
“As we’ve said, the formula we’ve set it necessary, but not sufficient for opening,” said Levine. “We include other factors, including our ability in terms of testing and contact tracing. We are looking at these counties closely (including Huntingdon and Blair counties) in that area in terms of the possibility of going from red to yellow in the next announcements. We’re looking at the data closely this week, making our recommendations to the governor. We’re very hopeful, but we don’t want to jump the gun in terms of announcements, but everything is looking very positive.”
However, the state Department of Health didn’t answer if they would be offering testing to all inmates and staff members, regardless of symptoms at SCIs across the state if outbreaks would occur. As of now, all inmates and staff are tested if they show symptoms.