Governor Tom Wolf renews pandemic disaster declaration for another 90 days

Gov. Tom Wolf extended the state’s Proclamation of Disaster Emergency for the COVID-19 pandemic for another 90-days.

In this week’s proclamation, Wolf noted that 314,401 Pennsylvanians have tested positive for the virus and 9,870 have reportedly died from it.

“With cases and hospitalizations increasing, we cannot afford to let down our guard,” Wolf said in a press release. “This renewal will allow the commonwealth to maintain its response and support efforts as we face increasing case numbers and decreasing hospital capacity.”

Wolf signed the first proclamation on March 6, following the announcement of the first two presumptive cases of COVID-19 and has since renewed the declaration in June and August.

The extended disaster declaration will allow the state to continue to waive the one-week waiting period to receive unemployment compensation and work search requirements. It also gives the state the power to provide relief from charges for employers and suspends numerous training requirements, certifications and licensure renewals for health care professionals, child care workers and more.

“The renewed disaster declaration will continue to support all of these efforts, as well as allow the commonwealth to rapidly scale response efforts and employ new intervention tactics, such as the administration of a vaccine,” The governor’s office wrote in the release.

Pennsylvania targets Thanksgiving Eve in latest COVID-19 orders

With COVID-19 cases on the rise — the state health department reported 44,502 positive cases over the past seven days — Pennsylvania is issuing what it called targeted safety measures to slow the transmission rate.

Gov. Tom Wolf said the state is trying to balance many needs.

“We want to make sure we protect public health, but we also continue to support a very fragile economy,” said Gov. Tom Wolf.

One of the new orders is very targeted. It’s aimed at one night only – Thanksgiving eve. State Health Secretary Rachel Levine said bars and restaurants must stop serving alcohol at 5 p.m. and not resume sales until 8 a.m. the following morning.

The night before Thanksgiving is historically the busiest night of the year for bars, as young people returning to their hometown for the Thanksgiving holiday often meet up with old friends. Such large gatherings could lead to the spread of the virus among people who would then take it home to their families.

In other news, bars and restaurants are being offered extended liability for those who self-certify that they are complying with all state and CDC guidelines and are enforcing mask wearing.

Capacity remains at 50% for those that self-certify and 25% for those who do not.

For other businesses, Levine asked that they allow employees to work remotely from home if at all possible.

Retailers should maintain 75% capacity and enforce mask-wearing.

Gyms and salons should maintain 50% capacity and enforce mask wearing.

“The commonwealth is in a precarious place right now,” said Wolf. “We have more people in the hospital right now than we did in the height of the pandemic in the spring, more than 3,000.”

The state’s new orders may not be the end word on mitigation efforts. Levine also announced that the state was giving municipalities more authority to take target action locally, where they see fit.

That means the local government of areas with higher transition rates may issue additional restrictions in their area, while areas with lower infection rates would not be impacted.

Penn State Health renews visitation limits

Penn State Health is once again revising its visitation guidelines in response to an increase in COVID-19 positive patients across the Hershey-based health system.

The system announced on Sunday that beginning on Monday, adult inpatients staying at a Penn State Health facility can have only one family or support person with them during their stay and pediatric patients can have two.

The designated support persons will be the only individuals allowed to enter the facility during the patient’s stay.

Adult patients of emergency departments and outpatient clinics will not be allowed a family or support person, save for exceptions for end-of-life patients and patients with disabilities, communication barriers or behavioral concerns.

The guidelines are system wide and include Penn State Health facilities such as Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, St. Joseph, Holy Spirit Medical Center and any Penn State Health Medical Group locations.

Anyone entering the facilities will be required to wear a mask and all family or support persons will be screened before entering a facility.

York-based WellSpan Health announced a similar tightening of its visitation guidelines last week.

Covid vaccine could be ready for rollout in Pennsylvania next month, health secretary says

As Pennsylvania faces its most dangerous coronavirus surge, Health Secretary Rachel Levine said the commonwealth could have the vaccine “within the next month” if federal approval remains on track.

However, Levine has sounded a note of caution over the prospect of a Covid-19 vaccine, stressing that “we do not know how quickly the vaccine supply will meet the demand.”

“It is important to remember again that when the vaccine becomes available, it will not be a cure — certainly not an immediate cure or end — to the coronavirus pandemic,” Levine said.

The Department of Health on Thursday released their interim vaccination plan, which outlines for the first time who will have first access to vaccines, how they will be administered and how the state plans to promote vaccines to its population, including to some people who might be wary.

In the first phase, when vaccine doses are likely to be limited, high-risk workers in health care settings, first responders, other essential workers, people with pre-existing health conditions and adults in long-term care are likely to be prioritized.

As more doses become available, those highly vulnerable to COVID-19 will be vaccinated, and then eventually the general public.

Right now, Levine said, the focus is on the two vaccines — Moderna and Pfizer — though there are others in the pipeline.

Pfizer released interim results that showed its candidate vaccine was more than 90% effective, and Moderna’s vaccine appears to be 94.5% effective against the disease.

The announcement regarding the vaccine’s arrival came the same day the commonwealth reported 7,126 new coronavirus cases, the highest single-day increase since the pandemic began in March.

“We anticipate, again, that we’re going to be rolling this out through the winter and then the spring and into the summer,” Levine said. “It could take a significant amount of time to immunize everyone in Pennsylvania. I anticipate that we’re going to be wearing masks in 2021, well into — maybe until the end of — 2021,” she said.

WellSpan Health limits visitations to its facilities

WellSpan Health updated its visitation policy on Tuesday to tighten visitation to its facilities as Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 positive cases continue to rise.

It is the first time that the system has paused visitation to its facilities since opening for limited visits in early June.

The York-based hospital system issued a statement saying the policy change was for the safety of its patients, visitors and staff. WellSpan will prohibit visitors from its emergency department patient areas and all other departments unless specified otherwise.

Expectant mothers and end-of-life patients may continue to have one support person. Pediatric patients may have two healthy parents or guardians with them.

Any visitors permitted to enter the hospital must pass a health screening, which includes answering questions about their health related to COVID-19. Visitors over 2 must also wear a face covering during their stay at the facility.

Despite growing cases of COVID-19 across the state, the Wolf administration has yet to issue its own recommendation for hospitals to close visitations to their facilities.

Midstate chamber leaders weigh pros and cons of a Biden presidency

Photo by Adam Schultz / Biden for President

President-elect Joe Biden is on his way to the White House after winning both the popular vote and an estimated 306 electoral votes in the 2020 presidential election, but which Biden is the country going to get?

Will it be a President Biden who embraces policies espoused by the farther left-leaning voices in his party, or the moderate Biden, whom voters remember from his days in the Senate? Midstate business leaders say that will depend on which party wins control of the Senate.

The Senate majority will be decided by two run-off elections on Jan. 5, in two, too-close-to-call seats in Georgia. If Democrats win both contests, the Senate will be split evenly between both parties, giving the tie-breaking vote to Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.

“People’s perspective of a Biden presidency is shaped by whether or not the Republicans continue to control the Senate,” said Thomas Baldrige, president and CEO of the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce. “If they do continue to control the Senate, there is an expectation that his presidency will be more to the center, and if the Democrats control the senate his presidency will be pulled left.”

For many midstate businesses, however, the matter of who is president matters less than the more pressing matter of knowing when the country can expect a fourth wave of COVID-19 stimulus. The number of coronavirus cases in the state is rising exponentially and many businesses continue to operate in the red.

On Nov. 18, the state Department of Health reported 6,339 positive cases, the highest one-day count since the beginning of the pandemic.

“We’ve talked to people about this and I will tell you that the overwhelming response has been, ‘how do we deal with COVID and keep our people safe?’” said Gene Barr, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry. “That was much more so than ‘who will be president?’”

Biden’s plan to combat COVID-19, states that as president he will be “taking immediate, bold measures to help Americans who are hurting economically right now.” Those measures, according to the Biden campaign, will include direct federal support and a renewable fund to state and local governments that could be used to provide mortgage and rental relief for impacted workers, interest-free loans for small businesses and help employers keep workers on the job.

The Biden administration will also be looking to establish a temporary small- and medium-sized business loan facility that will offer interest-free loans to businesses during the pandemic.


Assuming the country is able to find a way around the pandemic in the coming months, a Democrat in the White House could mean the end of regulatory rollbacks, which were a hallmark of President Trump’s tenure, and one that proved positive for many chamber members, said David Black, president and CEO of the Harrisburg Regional Chamber and CREDC.

“A lot of businesses I’ve talked to were generally happy with the policy initiatives under the Trump administration,” Black said. “They were not necessarily happy with how (the administration) conducted business but they were happy with the policies.”

Early in his presidency, President Trump signed an executive order requiring federal agencies to cut two regulations for every one they create. Biden could potentially revoke the order in his first days in office. The president-elect has already pledged to walk back a number of Trump era orders.

Black is finding that many business owners are optimistic about a President Biden thanks to his long standing relationships with Republicans.

While many businesses prospered under the Trump administration, they are also looking to escape an administration whose uncertain nature proved hard to build long-range plans around.

“I’ve heard from people, frankly, even from those that support Trump, that are looking forward to more stability and less drama,” said Baldrige. “Which may make planning and day-to-day business easier. That might be the gain in a Biden presidency.”

The minimum wage

Despite the potential positives of a Biden presidency, chamber leaders across the region have heard a number of concerns regarding Biden’s platform, or the goals of his fellow Democrat, such as raising the minimum wage.

Biden has mentioned on a number of occasions that as president he would fight to increase the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 an hour, something that could spell doom for small businesses.

Biden’s platform specifies that he will work to not only raise the federal minimum wage to $15, but also include workers who aren’t currently earning the minimum wage. The platform also notes that he has previously supported eliminating the tipped minimum wage.

For restaurants already struggling to survive the pandemic, a raise in the minimum wage is the last thing they need, Barr said.

“Federal minimum wage is just unfair,” he said. “The cost of doing business in New York City, versus Harrisburg or Greene County, Pennsylvania, is totally different.”

An increase in taxation for Pennsylvania businesses could also act as a one-two punch alongside the pandemic, according to Baldrige, who said it’s the wrong time to raise taxes and the wrong time to saddle midstate businesses with more regulations.

“I would suggest that the priority of the list they are working from needs to be more immediate and that would necessitate another round of stimulus funds, which will be necessary to get companies through the winter,” he said.

Dr. Rachel Levine announces tougher orders on travel and masks to slow COVID-19 spread

This story was updated at 4:45 p.m.

Pennsylvania will require visitors to the state to provide proof they tested negative for COVID-19, and is recommending all residents wear masks indoors and outdoors even if six feet from another person.

Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine announced those and two other new mitigation efforts that the Wolf Administration will be taking to slow the spread of COVID-19 in the state.

The efforts include an order requiring visitors into the state to have a negative COVID-19 test, a strengthening of the state’s masking order, a memorandum to acute care hospitals and a list of recommendations for colleges and universities.

Levine said the state is not looking to enact any mass closures of businesses or introducing another phased reopening process as it did earlier in the year.

“These targeted measures are extremely important and we want to emphasize all of these very important measures,” she said. “If we all do our part and stand united we may not need further mitigation efforts taken.”

Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine announces a number of COVID-19 mitigation efforts during a press call on Tuesday. PHOTO PROVIDED

An hour before the secretary’s news conference earlier today, the state Department of Health reported 5,900 additional positive cases of COVID-19 as of 12 a.m. on Nov. 17. Referencing the growing number of cases, Levine said that the state was in need of targeted actions to reduce spread.

“We continue to see the number of new COVID-19 cases rising, our percent positivity rising, our hospitalizations rising, as well as the number of Pennsylvanians critically ill due to COVID-19 rising,” Levine said.

Levine issued a new order requiring anyone who visits from another state to have a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours before entering Pennsylvania or to quarantine for 14 days upon returning to the state.

While she has the authority to enforce isolation and quarantines, Levine said that she will not be enforcing the orders, rather, the order is meant to communicate to Pennsylvanians not to travel out of the state for the holidays.

“We are not looking to take people to court but I do have that authority,” she said. “We cannot check every car driving into Pennsylvania and we have no plans to check everyone coming off of every airplane.”

The state also issued a recommendation that Pennsylvanians wear masks indoors and outdoors even if they are more than six feet away from someone else. This is more stringent then Levine’s April 15 order and applies to schools, gyms, homes, retail, public transportation, doctors’ offices and anywhere food is packaged or served.

Levine’s list of COVID-19 mitigation efforts included a list of recommendations issued to colleges and universities to implement more stringent testing of students returning to school after the holidays.

The recommendations include establishing routine protocols for testing, creating adequate capacity for isolation and quarantine, preparing to enforce violations for students who refuse to wear masks or practice social distancing and testing students at the beginning of each term.

Levine also sent a memorandum to acute care hospitals outlining expectations relating to patient care as the pandemic worsens. She quoted a study by the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, which projects that Pennsylvania will run out of ICU beds by next month.

“To address this, I have outlined my expectations for acute care hospitals outlining our opportunities to work collaboratively during these challenging times,” she said.

In the memorandum, the department noted it is looking to share data and expectations with the hospital community to ensure they are prepared to manage increases in patient numbers.

Midstate real estate markets are recovering, but hotels are another story, experts say

Panelists Joy Daniels of Joy Daniels Real Estate Group (top left), Lowell Gates of Linlo Properties (bottom left) and Mark DiSanto of Triple Crown Corp. (bottom right) speak to MC Brian Finley, of LMS Commercial Real Estate during a panel at CPBJ’s annual Real Estate and Construction Summit.


While the commercial segment of the midstate real estate market seems to be waiting to see if the pandemic will slow demand for office space, residential housing is seeing recovery despite a shortage in housing stock.

For the hospitality industry, hotels that serve leisure travelers are faring better than those that cater to business clients, including events and meetings.

Those were the sentiments that emerged during a Real Estate and Development Summit convened by Central Penn Business Journal. The event brought together business leaders in the real estate and hospitality industries to discuss the range of impacts the virus had on the local and national economy.

Keynote speaker Keith Aleardi, executive vice president and Chief Investment Officer of Fulton Financial Advisors, gave an overview of the local and national economies. Unemployment rates continue to move back to pre-pandemic levels with 8.1% unemployment in Pennsylvania and 7.9% nationally, compared to 15.1% and 14.7% respectively in April. And he does not expect a second lockdown in the wake of increased positive cases, at least not one as severe.

“We saw the worst back in Easter week, mid-April,” he said. “We have been recovering ever since. The question is do we get another lockdown. I don’t think we will experience the same lockdown.”

Unemployment rates in the state are lower than the Pennsylvania average in industries such as health care, social assistance and transportation and warehousing. But other industries, such as manufacturing and retail, continue to deal with higher unemployment.

Turning to housing and construction, Aleardi predicted demand for new homes will continue to be strong in the coming months, but there will be less demand for new construction projects, and more demand to retrofit older buildings.

Joy Daniels, owner of Harrisburg-based Joy Daniels Real Estate Group, mirrored Aleardi’s comments on housing, adding that the industry is still waiting to see how the epidemic will affect the long term way people choose to live.

“Things like dedicated work spaces are really important now to homeowners,” she said. “We don’t know how long that will last, but real estate agents are flexible and we will adjust.”

Lowell Gates, owner and founder of Camp Hill-based Linlo properties, was more confident about commercial real estate. Media coverage regarding the death of the office market is “somewhat exaggerated.” While commercial real estate did take a hit as companies began operating online during the pandemic, companies will still need office space, particularly following a vaccine.

“I think tenants really do see value in having office space where team members can come together and work,” said Gates. “On the other hand, my biggest concern is with national tenants. They are making the most inquiries to us about their office space whereas local and regional tenants seem very content to come back to work.”

Mark DiSanto, CEO of Triple Crown Corporation in Harrisburg, agreed. His national clients are the ones worried about keeping their physical locations as regional tenants wait out the storm.

Part of Triple Crown’s portfolio includes industrial, which continues to show strong demand for real estate, according to DiSanto.

“We love the industrial market,” he said. “We have smaller industrial flex and we’ve developed larger big box facilities. Demand is strong and continues to be strong.”

The hospitality industry is also coming back, but in a lopsided way as leisure travelers look for more destinations they can drive to and pause air travel for 2020, said Michael Gillespie, Chief Accounting Officer at Hersha Hospitality Trust. The industry also took a hit when business clients stopped holding events and conferences, he said.

Local, independent lodgings could continue to do worse than properties affiliated with stronger brands as guests look toward the safety of a known brand.

“People will travel, hotels will recover, but how long will it take

COVID-19 cases continue to escalate in Pennsylvania

The Pennsylvania Department of Health is urging residents to keep up the mitigation efforts as the fall wave of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to pick up speed and break record case counts in the commonwealth.

The DOH confirmed that the Keystone State’s two-day total for COVID-19 reached a count of 6,311 additional positive cases, with 3,402 reported Monday, in addition to 2,909 cases reported on Sunday. Nine deaths linked to the coronavirus were also reported over those two days.

Increased case counts struck the commonwealth heavily over the past week, reaching a high-water mark with a report of 4,035 cases on Saturday, and officials are speculating that rates will continue to rise as the fall segues into winter.

“We don’t know exactly how long (until) the fall resurgence becomes the winter resurgence, and how long that’s going to last. I’m afraid I do not think that we have peaked,” Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine said Monday, adding that the case increases seen in Pennsylvania reflect those observed across the country.

As of Monday, Pennsylvania has reported a statewide total count of 234,296 cases of COVID-19, with 9,024 deaths attributed to the virus.

“We are now seeing the highest case counts of the COVID-19 pandemic across Pennsylvania that we have seen since the beginning,” Levine said. “This is a sobering look at our current reality, as COVID-19 continues to impact our state and our country. What we are seeing in Pennsylvania is a direct reflection of what is occurring across the country, in almost every state.”

According to the DOH’s weekly Early Warning Monitoring Dashboard update, as of Nov. 5, Pennsylvania has seen a seven-day case increase of 15,989 cases. The previous seven-day increase was 13,486 cases, indicating 2,503 more new cases across the state over the past week as compared to the previous week.

The secretary of health also noted the increase of percent positivity in testing, which jumped from 6% last week to nearly 7% as of this week, according to the COVID-19 Early Warning Monitoring Dashboard.

“That is one indicator how we know that the increase is not just due to increased testing, it’s due to an increased number of cases of COVID-19 in our counties and in our commonwealth,” Levine said.

Furthermore, another 12 counties reported a percent positivity rate in excess of 5% on Monday, elevating the statewide total to 52 counties with a concerning rate.

Community spread of COVID-19 is being observed across Pennsylvania, Levine added, with 47 counties on a watch list for increased cases, and 54 counties reporting increased case counts over the past week.

While increases have been noted at particular locations – correctional institutions, schools, colleges, nursing homes and so on – community spread that cannot be “pinpointed to one activity or one location” appears to be the norm.

“It is just prevalent in the community, and it is spreading in the community, and that is why the mitigation efforts that I am discussing, such as the masks, such as the hand washing and the social distancing, is so important everywhere in Pennsylvania to stop the spread,” Levine said.

The secretary of health reported 73% of the total COVID-19 cases in the commonwealth are considered recovered, “meaning that it has been more than 30 days past the patient’s positive test, or onset of symptoms,” though she noted “that number will naturally decrease with the high number of cases.”

Conversely, reports of COVID-19 “long haulers,” or those that deal with symptoms and effects of the virus even months after onset, continue to be reported.

Levine also pointed out that 1,735 individuals have been hospitalized in Pennsylvania due to COVID-19, a number the secretary said has been climbing, and had increased by over 500 patients as compared to last week’s figures.


The secretary of health indicated that with the pandemic’s fall resurgence underway, it is integral that Pennsylvanians work together to prevent further spread of the virus.

“This is a call to action for everyone in Pennsylvania,” Levine said. “COVID-19 is right here, and we are at a critical point. We all need to take steps to prevent the spread of this virus, and if we don’t, we put ourselves, our families and our communities, and our health systems, at risk.”

Levine encouraged Pennsylvanians to adhere to the recommendations of public health professionals – including Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Surgeon General Jerome Adams – including mask wearing, social distancing, and using the COVID Alert PA app. She also called upon Pennsylvanians to respond to information requests from contact tracers and investigators, as fewer and fewer individuals have been engaging in the information-gathering practice “that might just save a life.”

“We can through this, but it requires each of us working together, united, regardless of other differences,” Levine said.

Unfortunately, that does mean medical officials are suggesting that families avoid large or small gatherings, and opt instead to celebrate the upcoming holidays remotely.

“It’s a really challenging message, now that we’re entering November,” Levine said. “We’re getting closer to Thanksgiving, and then the holidays, with Christmas and Hannukah and Kwanzaa, but we are asking people to not get together, actually, with their loved ones and their friends. And I know that is really challenging, and it is a sacrifice, but it is not only large gatherings that contribute to the spread, it is actually relatively small gatherings.”

As far as areas where residents appear to be bucking mitigation efforts – sometimes as a form of political protest – Levine stressed that the DOH is working alongside officials and members of the community to work on those factors.

“This is not a partisan issue, this is not a political issue,” Levine said. “This is a public health issue. Wearing a mask is not a political statement, it’s a public health measure to protect yourself, to protect your family, your community, and eventually, the whole state.”


The secretary of health also reiterated some elements of the commonwealth’s vaccine distribution and administration strategy, which was introduced last week, in light of pharmaceutical giant Pfizer’s Monday announcement that their formula has shown itself to be 90% effective in preventing the virus.

“We don’t know exactly when we’re going to see it, but it was a very positive announcement from Pfizer that their vaccine has been shown to be very effective – they said up to 90% effective,” Levine said. “They have finished their efficacy studies; they still haven’t finished all of their safety studies. They’re anticipating that maybe by the end of November, beginning of December.”

Once those studies are completed and the data is submitted to the federal government and the FDA for review and approved, the torch will be passed on to the DOH for the next steps of the process. However, as previously noted, some of the potential vaccines, including the Pfizer formula, will require special consideration for storage and distribution.

“We stand ready to distribute and administer the vaccine,” Levine said. “Now, the Pfizer vaccine is the one that is ultra-cold – that’s the one that (must be stored at) minus 70 to 80 degrees centigrade. It has to be kept on dry ice or in ultra-cold refrigeration units, so that poses challenges, but we’ve already reached out to hospitals and health systems to be able to accomplish that.”

Last week, Levine released information on the three-phased strategy that will be implemented once a vaccine is ready for release. The first phase to receive vaccinations will primarily consist of health care personnel, followed by vulnerable populations and the general public.

Levine noted that the DOH has its eye on half a dozen potential vaccines, including five which are in phase three trials. Pfizer and Moderna appear to be leading the pack, with Pfizer on track to seek an EUA by the end of the month.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, noted that Pfizer’s results were “just extraordinary,” exceeding even the wildest expectations.

“It’s going to have a major impact on everything we do with respect to COVID,” Fauci said in an Associated Press interview.

But while the commonwealth, the United States and the rest of the world await the arrival of an effective vaccine to fight COVID-19, medical experts continue to encourage mitigation efforts and information sharing in the quest to defeat the pandemic.

“We are all together united – answering the call when we wear a mask, when we wash our hands, when we social distance, when we avoid large and small gatherings, and we download the COVID-19 app,” Levine said. “We must all stand united in our fight, our collective fight, against COVID-19.”

PA COVID numbers highest since pandemic onset

Pennsylvania’s Department of Health confirmed an additional 2,795 cases of COVID-19 as of Wednesday, noting that daily increases are now the highest they have ever been since the start of the pandemic.

The Nov. 4 report elevated the commonwealth’s total coronavirus count to 217,666 cases. An additional 35 deaths were also reported, bringing the statewide total to 8,890 fatalities linked to the virus.

On Tuesday, the DOH reported Pennsylvania’s largest daily count yet with 2,875 positive cases, raising concerns among Governor Tom Wolf’s administration, the DOH and health professionals.

“#COVID19 case counts have reached an all-time high in Pennsylvania,” Wolf said in a Wednesday tweet. “Please protect yourself and your loved ones from this virus. The best thing we can do right now is keep our distance, wear masks in public, avoid crowds, and practice good health habits.”

According to the DOH, 217,017 tests were performed in the Keystone State from Oct. 28 to Nov. 3, with 16,425 positive cases.

As of 10 p.m. on Nov. 2, 49,087 test results were reported to the department, “a record high number of (polymerase chain reaction) test results” which show if an individual has an active infection.

Positive viral antigen tests, another diagnostic test, have reached a total of 4,130 individuals that are considered probable cases, along with 646 individuals who have a positive serology test and either COVID-19 symptoms or high-risk exposure.

On Tuesday, Wolf Administration began distribution of the fourth allotment of antigen test kits provided by the federal government to Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA)-certified institutions in Elk, Lawrence, Mifflin and Philadelphia counties.

Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine noted that the kits are “timely, quick and easy-to-use tools for communities to receive rapid COVID-19 testing.”

“These test kits, provided by the federal government and being distributed to areas in need by the Wolf Administration, will further help communities struggling with the spread of COVID-19,” Levine said. “Antigen tests look for pieces of proteins that make up the SARS-CoV-2 virus and are less sensitive than PCR tests for detecting COVID-19 infections.”

The bulk of COVID-19 diagnoses currently encompass citizens aged 25 an older. Nearly 36% of those that have tested positive to date fall into the 25 to 49-year-old range, while 21% are aged 50 to 64, and nearly 21% are aged 65 and older.

However, the DOH also reported that there have been “significant increases in the COVID-19 cases” among younger age ranges, especially among 19 to 24-year-olds. As of the end of October, this age bracket has increased across the state, ranging from 12% of total counts in the southwest and south-central regions to 28% of cases in the north-central region.

On Wednesday, the DOH announced that Levine would hold a virtual meeting on Thursday to discuss the latest news on the COVID-19 vaccine, and Pennsylvania’s plan to distribute it once it is available.

Wolf, Levine and the DOH have continued to promote mitigation efforts – including hand washing, mask-wearing, social distancing and more – to help curb the spread of coronavirus in the commonwealth as case counts increase, especially in light of the upcoming holiday season.

“We are asking people to stay within their households and to contact their friends and their families in a more virtual way,” Levine said on Oct. 29. “And that’s a tremendous sacrifice that we’re asking people to make, but it is absolutely necessary at this challenging time.”

Penn State Health’s new CEO says the system is prepared for a resurging pandemic

Steve Massini took the role of CEO at Penn State Health on July 1., 2019. PHOTO/SUBMITTED

Last year, Penn State Health broke with tradition when it announced that its vice president and chief administrative officer would take the role of CEO following the retirement of former CEO Craig Hillemeier.

That July, Steve Massini became the first CEO in the Hershey-based hospital system’s history to not also lead Penn State’s College of Medicine as its Dean. The split was created to allow Massini to focus on the ever-growing system, that, in the 50 years since the academic health system was founded, has expanded well beyond the standalone medical center.

Neither Massini nor Penn State Health’s Board of Directors could have anticipated how crucial that split would become the following year. The COVID-19 pandemic forced the health system to rethink how it secured supplies, the extent to which it offered telehealth, its communication to staff and patients and much more. Without Penn State hiring Dr. Kevin Black as interim Dean for the College of Medicine, Massini said he can’t picture how he would have managed both the clinical and academic sides of the house.

“I know how hard myself and our team worked, especially in the early weeks and months when we were adjusting by the hour, struggling to find supplies and trying to figure out what we needed to treat our patients appropriately,” said Massini. “I can’t imagine what it would have been like to, at the same time, try to think about how we manage through the effects on our students and our research efforts and everything else that happened in the College of Medicine.”

Navigating the pandemic

In the early months of the pandemic, Massini had to change his leadership strategies to fit with the turmoil his staff was going through to keep facilities stocked with personal protective equipment and to ensure facilities were following rapidly changing regulations.

“Communicating to staff through town hall meetings became a big part of my job that I probably wouldn’t have thought about a few weeks before March,” he said. “It was always a piece of it but it became a daily focus of mine to make sure I was communicating with our employees, our board and the university.”

Today, Massini says the system is better prepared to handle a resurgence of the virus, noting that with the system’s current patient levels, Penn State Health could handle a significant increase in cases.

Some impacts of the virus will not be leaving the greater health care industry any time soon and Penn State Health is no different. On an average order of supplies, the system may only receive around 20% of what was ordered. Massini said that his staff has grown accustomed to ordering five times more than what it would have ordered last year. Rather than keep two weeks supply on hand for personal protective equipment, the system will keep up to two months’ supply.

“We used to live in a world where we had almost real time supplies,” Massini said. “We kept one or two weeks in the clinics or in the hospitals and we knew the reorders would come in every Friday or Monday.”

In recent years, Penn State Health prided itself on a strategy that ensured residents in the five-county region were within 10 minutes of a Penn State primary care provider, 20 minutes from one of the system’s specialty care providers and 30 minutes of a Penn State hospital.

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Massini said leadership added a fourth element to the strategy: zero minutes from telehealth.

Since February, the system went from 7,000 patients on its telehealth program, Penn State Health on Demand, to more that 82,000.

“We’ve restructured internally to focus on virtual health not just throughout our on demand platform but through how we deliver those services,” Massini said. “I think that was the good thing that came out of COVID. It really pushed us to invest in how we deliver our care.”

The pandemic also led to Penn State Health’s leadership shifting approximately 6,500 of its staffers to work-from-home employees. The shift to online work will most likely have a permanent effect on the system as it begins to hire employees from anywhere in the country compared to limiting staff to work in Hershey, Massini said.

A plan for growth

Today, the system is working on finishing its Cumberland County-based Hampden Medical Center for its opening date next year, and recently completed the structure of its Lancaster Medical Center in East Hempfield Township, Lancaster County– planned for completion in 2022.

Penn State Health is also awaiting regulatory approval on a deal with Danville-based Geisinger Health System to acquire Holy Spirit Health System, in Cumberland County. Expanding the system to contain three additional hospitals, keeping in line with its 0,10,20,30 strategy, differentiates Penn State Health from other systems in the midstate, Massini said.

“When you look at the other systems, a lot of the efforts are to move care out of our community,” he said. “They transfer patients to Philadelphia or Pittsburgh and we are trying to do the opposite.”

Regulators have yet to approve the deal with Geisinger, but Penn State Health expects to be able to move forward with its acquisition of Holy Spirit on Nov. 1. The acquisition would not only give the system control over the 307-bed Catholic community hospital, but would also make Penn State Health the owner of Geisinger’s many facilities, clinics and practice sites in the Camp Hill area.

The sale is not the first of Penn State Health’s to be affected by antitrust investigations. In 2015, the FTC and the state Attorney General opposed a merger by Penn State Health and PinnacleHealth, claiming that the merger would give the organizations a monopoly on the region.

In 2016, Penn State Health and PinnacleHealth called the deal off. Massini said that he does not see the same thing happening with Penn State Health and Geisinger, being that the two deals are drastically different in scope.

“There is no comparison. The proposed transaction of merging Pinnacle and Penn State Health was a much bigger transaction with assets in many different places,” he said. “This is much more narrowly focused to the West Shore community.”

Geisinger limits visitations at 13 hospitals following COVID-19 spikes across state

Geisinger will temporarily restrict in-person visits to all of its hospitals, including Geisinger Holy Spirit, following spikes of positive COVID-19 cases across the state.

The Danville, Montour County-based hospital system announced on Monday that it will once again restrict visitations to its hospitals on Nov. 2.

Exceptions to the new restrictions include visitations to delivering mothers, patients who are medically unstable, any patients who are imminently dying and minors.

Visitations for outpatient procedures, diagnostics and clinical appointments will not be part of the new restrictions.

This is the second time this year that Geisinger has restricted visitations to its hospitals. The system began allowing two visitors for each of its adult patients in June after first limiting visits in March.

On Tuesday, the Pennsylvania Department of Health announced there were 2,751 new positive cases of COVID-19 reported, adding to the statewide total of 198,446. In its most recent report, the department said that daily increases of positive cases were now comparable to what the state saw in April.

In a statement, Geisinger said it understands that restrictions are a point of stress for families and noted that it provides iPads to family members to help make communicating easier.
“It can be difficult being apart from a family member when they’re in the hospital, and having that connection is important,” the system wrote. “Family and friends are encouraged to find alternative ways of visiting, such as phone calls, Facetime, Skype and other means when possible.”

Geisinger employs 33,800 people including 1,800 physicians. The system has 13 hospitals, two research centers and a school of medicine.