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Pa.'s coronavirus data blunders lead to confusion

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The Investigator

Your guide to the Capitol & stories holding the powerful to account

June 18, 2020 | spotlightpa.org

Pennsylvania is one of three states where COVID-19 cases have been trending down for more than 42 days, Gov. Tom Wolf said this week, citing CDC data. That's welcomed news, though one that comes with a few asterisks. 

A Spotlight PA review of the state’s COVID-19 data practices identified shortcomings that have undermined the public's trust in the numbers, and made it difficult for researchers, policymakers, and the public to get an accurate sense of what’s happening.

There are also outstanding questions about the state's response inside nursing and care homes, where more than 4,300 people have died. A Spotlight PA investigation found long-standing staffing and regulatory issues known to the state were likely exacerbated by the crisis

Help is on the way for these facilities in the form of a $175 million plan to put health systems in charge of infection control and testing. One advocate praised the news, but lamented that it's coming so late into the pandemic.

The state is also lacking one major thing it needs to maintain its progress: robust contact tracing. While some areas are flush with resources, Spotlight PA found other parts of the state already in the "green" reopening phase have limited capacity — putting them at greater risk for future outbreaks. 

Sarah Anne Hughes, Spotlight PA


"Here’s this incredible piece of technology that could surveil [the police], and none of it is publicly accessible."

— Elizabeth Randol, legislative director for ACLU-PA, on a Pa. law that makes it virtually impossible to obtain police body camera recordings.
LATEST ON THE CORONAVIRUS NUMBERS: Over the past two weeks, 12 counties in Pennsylvania saw a rise in new cases, 19 were falling, and 36 were statistically unchanged or had an unclear trend. 

Latest from Spotlight PA

» Pa. will give health systems $175 million for COVID-19 response in nursing homes
Red tape, lack of funding limits public oversight of police through body cams
» Health officials failed to safeguard trust in Pa.'s coronavirus data
» Parts of Pa. reopened without robust coronavirus contact tracing
» Pa. advances reforms to create confidential police disciplinary database

The deadliest day of the coronavirus in Pa., plus other insights we can glean from the data

It’s been three months since Pennsylvania’s first reported cases of the coronavirus.

During that time, we’ve tried to not only provide you with in-depth reporting about COVID-19 in Pennsylvania, but context about the coronavirus-related numbers being pumped out daily by the state Department of Health.

Our data dashboard includes basic COVID-19 statistics like deaths and cases reported by the state. But you can also find testing information and by-county trends. We’re updating the data daily and working to add new features, and refine existing ones, every week.

Here are some other key statistics about the outbreak based on our analysis:

Hardest-hit region

There’s little doubt that the Philadelphia area has been the epicenter of Pennsylvania’s outbreak. Philadelphia, Montgomery and Delaware Counties have seen 2,972 people die from the virus, accounting for nearly half of all deaths. Delaware County, with 111 deaths per 100,000 people, has the highest death rate per capita in the state.

Least-impacted region

Compared to eastern Pennsylvania, the western half of the state — particularly rural counties in the northwest — have had significantly fewer reported cases and deaths. Eleven counties have had no reported deaths at all.

Day with the most hospitalizations

Deaths in Pennsylvania have been trending downward significantly since late April, and so too have hospitalizations. May 27 marked the state’s peak: 2,800 people were in hospitals due to the coronavirus. By comparison, only about 850 people were in hospitals due to the virus each day over the past week.

Deadliest day

This metric demonstrates the limitations of using COVID-19 data from the state. Our data dashboard shows when deaths are reported by the health department to the public, which would make it seem as if May 5 was the deadliest day. But the timing of when a death is "reported" often doesn't match when it actually occurred. In fact, based on new data from the state, April 25 was the deadliest day of the pandemic so far, with 179 deaths.

County with highest testing rate

One of Pennsylvania’s smallest counties has the highest rate of testing in the state. Montour County has a testing rate of 21,000 tests per 100,000 people, which is roughly the rate that some Harvard researchers have recommended. It’s also roughly triple the rate of the counties with the next highest rate: Northampton and Montgomery, with a rate of about 7,000 each.

Check out the full data dashboard here.

Have questions or ideas about Pa.'s coronavirus data? Email Dan Simmons-Ritchie at dsimmons-ritchie@spotlightpa.org.

From across the state

» Majority Leader Bryan Culter is a leading contender to succeed House Speaker Mike Turzai. LNP reports the Peach Bottom Republican will serve as interim speaker following Turzai’s resignation, and is interested in the permanent role. 

» The U.S. Supreme Court this week delivered victories to LGBTQ Pennsylvanians — many of whom will now have workplace protections against discrimination — as well as undocumented "dreamers" brought to the U.S. as children. There are nearly 6,000 DACA recipients in Pennsylvania alone.   

» Range Resources last week pleaded no contest to environmental crimes, Pa. Attorney General Josh Shapiro announced. According to State Impact, the charges against the fracking company stem from leaks and spills at two sites in Washington County. 

» Erie Mayor Joe Schember suspended the police officer who kicked 21-year-old Hannah Silbaugh during a protest. The officer, who has not been named, will be suspended without pay for three days and then return to desk duty until he completes sensitivity training, Go Erie reported. 

» The Pittsburgh region is seeing a spike in abuse-hotline calls as coronavirus restrictions loosen. Some crisis centers reported double the number of phone calls than previous months, the Post-Gazette reports. 

Best of the rest across Pa.

» CAPITAL-STAR: What police accountability looks like in Pa.
» INQUIRER: Tenants, landlords seek rental assistance in Pa., NJ.
» INQUIRER: Coronavirus threatens Latinx workers at Bell & Evans chicken plants
» WESA: Attorney for Post-Gazette reporter barred from protest coverage files civil lawsuit
» WHYY: Getting a coronavirus test is not as easy as officials claim


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Tree Twister (Case No. 43): A bird, chipmunk, and snake are racing to the top of a coconut tree. If it's sunny with no wind, who will get the banana first, the bird, chipmunk, or snake?
Stumped? Get a hint. Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.

Last week's answer: The two were born at the same moment but in different time zones.

Congrats to Stephanie T., who will receive Spotlight PA swag (when we reopen our office!). Others who correctly answered: Deborah D., Claudia S., Judy A., Phil C., Michele M., Dennis M., Norman S.A., Hagan H., Jeff W., Annette I., Heather D., Rick S., Kathy W., Drew C., Jeffrey F., Rebecca D., Karen S., Roseanne D., Lou R., Brett H., Dennis F., Joseph S., Bill K., Kamaryn N., Jon N., and Ed N.
» This week's Riddler hint: Chicka, Chicka, Boom, Boom
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