It’s only been a few days since Gov. Wolf first announced plans to reopen the state’s counties as they continue to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
For county officials, those plans come with many questions and some concerns.
“Looking at what the governor has done with the May 1 opening for construction, that’s a big deal for us,” county commissioner Mark Sather told The Daily News. “We have a lot of self-employed contractors and that’s their livelihood. It does give us a glimmer of hope that will allow us to slowly bring things back.”
Huntingdon County Emergency Management Agency director Joe Thompson said the county is currently in the red phase of the governor’s plan.
“The initial guidance is that they’ll be looking to consider reopening based on a couple of things,” he said, noting the first of those is the number of cases. “To open, we must have 50 or less new cases for 100,000 residents per day for 14 days.”
As of Friday afternoon, when there were 20 COVID-19 cases in the county, which averages 46 cases per 100,000 residents.
While that sounds good, Sather pointed out Huntingdon County is part of the state’s southcentral region, and that could be what slows down progress.
“We’re lumped in with Dauphin, Lebanon, York, Cumberland, Franklin and Adams counties,” he said. “Of those six counties, there are 2,120 COVID-19 cases. That’s 94% of the cases in the southcentral region.”
Sather said there are 190 cases in the region’s remaining counties combined, including Juniata, Mifflin, Huntingdon, Blair, Bedford, Perry and Fulton counties.
“It does hurt us being lumped in with those six counties,” said Sather, noting there were 2,257 cases in the entire southcentral region as of Friday.
Thompson said Wolf has called for counties in the northcentral and northwest regions to open first.
To compare regions, Sather said the northcentral region had 614 cases as of Friday. Counties such as Northumberland, Centre, Clinton, Snyder, Bradford, Union and Tioga are included in that region. The northwest region, as of Friday, which includes Erie, Clearfield, Elk and Warren, had 251 cases.
“Supposedly they’re targeted for opening May 8, but yet, if you look at Juniata, Mifflin, Huntingdon, Blair, Bedford, Perry and Fulton counties, we have 190 cases as a combined group,” he said.
Both county officials stressed that safety and caution is key.
“This is not over by any means,” said Thompson. “At the yellow phase, any of us who can telework will continue to do so and hopefully small business retailers with in-person operations would need to follow guidelines as far as masking, social distancing and cleaning, but curbside and delivery would be highly stressed. The stay-at-home order could be lifted at that point, that would be a consideration. Large gatherings would be permitted up to 25 people.”
Even at the yellow phase, Thompson said gyms and entertainment facilities like theaters would remain closed.
Another point to be considered in the opening process is testing for COVID-19.
“The general guidance put out earlier in the week is that we must have the capacity for testing for individuals with symptoms and at-risk populations,” said Thompson. “Right now, testing is available by physician order by a Penn Highlands lab. Rest assured, tests are available through Penn Highlands lab through a physician’s order.
“(The governor’s office) is really stressing we follow the readiness of our hospitals and emergency medical folks in case of an upsurge in cases,” continued Thompson. “We’re following anything that could impact high-risk settings, which includes correctional institutions, personal care homes and long-term care facilities. It’s my understanding that the impact of COVID-19 on some of those facilities could affect how soon the county would open.”
With two state prisons in the county, Sather is also concerned about those facilities impacting the county opening. As of 5 p.m. Friday, the state Department of Corrections reported seven employees and three inmates at SCI Huntingdon have tested positive, while three employees and no inmates have tested positive at SCI Smithfield.
“It is a concern, and rightfully so, as we have a number of residents employed at the SCIs and, in terms of the population of inmates too,” said Sather. “We would absorb that. It could inflate our number and could inflate it rather quickly.”
Thompson is hopeful the county can reopen soon.
“When we started this process and we looked at trends and models of how COVID-19 might impact the county, our numbers were way above where we are now,” he said. “So our numbers, with people complying with the stay-at-home order and masking procedures and all the good guidances that have been given, will hopefully stay down.”
Thompson and Sather credit the numbers to preparedness, thanks to the response of emergency responders, the hospital and care facilities.
Even when the county gets the green light to open, Sather urges precautions must still be taken to prevent the spread of the virus.
“Safety is still paramount in the county,” he said. “We must continue to follow logical steps in terms of social distancing and wearing face masks to protect each other. We appreciate all the efforts residents are taking to contain this virus and the essential life-sustaining businesses for going about this as best they could.”
Becky can be reached at email@example.com.