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The Investigator

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

June 25, 2020 | spotlightpa.org

With summer break on the horizon — and months of campaigning ahead — Pennsylvania lawmakers tried to pack all they could into a busy week.

On Monday, the House elevated Rep. Bryan Cutler to speaker, making the Lancaster County Republican one of the youngest people to reach that post. Both chambers also advanced long-awaited police reform, including a bill that requires departments to track and report use of force. While a major step forward, the measure lacks racial data and public transparency requirements.

In this week's "Follow the Money" episode, Spotlight PA reported with The Caucus that top GOP Sen. Joe Scarnati was fast-tracking a lucrative gambling expansion that would benefit a major campaign donor. After the report, however, opposition has mounted and prospects are dimming.

Also this week, don't miss our deep dive into the Wolf administration's chaotic coronavirus business waiver program, which has been criticized by the business community as inconsistent and lacking transparency and oversight. As the state reopens, the ramifications for businesses are coming into focus.

As always, if you have a tip or story we should pursue, we're all ears.

Sarah Anne Hughes


"I have had police officers come in here to buy bait and nothing was said."

— Patrick Penfield, an Elk County bait shop owner, who defied Gov. Tom Wolf's shutdown order and reopened his business without consequence
LATEST ON THE CORONAVIRUS NUMBERS: Over the past two weeks, 17 counties in Pennsylvania saw a rise in new cases. That includes Allegheny and York Counties, which are both already in the "green" reopening phase. 

More from Spotlight PA

» Pa. GOP leaders in no hurry to extend LGBTQ protections under state law
» Mother of Antwon Rose II applauds confidential police hiring database

Politics, fear keep COVID-positive people from disclosing contacts. What’s the solution?

With all but one county in Pennsylvania moving to the “green” phase of reopening Friday, public health experts agree that contact tracing is a crucial element to keeping people safe and avoiding future shutdowns. 

Success relies on voluntary cooperation from the public, which has been hard to come by in some parts of the state. That diminishes the effectiveness of what is widely considered a sound public health practice.

For example, in Lancaster County, only 58% of the 670 people identified as contacts of an infected person have answered or returned calls, according to Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health.

In eastern Pennsylvania, the Lehigh Valley Health Network said it has contacted thousands of individuals who tested positive, but many declined to share the names of their contacts, allowing only 42% of contacts to be traced.

And so far in June, 60 infected individuals have declined to provide their list of contacts to the Chester County Health Department.

“Certainly we’re not going to be able to contain the spread of the disease if we can’t do the contact tracing,” said Chrysan Cronin, director and assistant professor of public health at Muhlenberg College. “It will just run rampant through the population and we’ll have to depend on herd immunity or a vaccine — both of which are uncertain.”

Traditionally, contact tracers see much better response rates, Cronin said. But as politics and public health continue to clash at federal and local levels, more people are skeptical of government intervention and the true severity of COVID-19. Others fear being blamed for spreading the virus.

Some areas of the state, however, have had much higher success rates, including Erie and Allegheny Counties. Penn State College of Medicine, which has been tracing patients in its health system, has reached 80% of contacts since March.

In Berks County, only two individuals called by tracers have refused to participate, said Carolyn Bazik, director of the nonprofit Co-County Wellness Services, which typically provides sexually transmitted infection services and is now leading COVID-19 contact tracing efforts in the county.

“We’ve been around for 35 years and we’ve safe-guarded HIV and STD information all that time,” Bazik said, “so that reputation makes people more likely to trust the process perhaps."

The key is building community trust, said Noble Maseru, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health and a former city health director in Cincinnati and Detroit. If the people doing this work are known and respected in the community, residents will be more likely to trust that their information is being used for a good purpose.  

“You really want to convey that you are treating everyone fairly and no one is being singled out.”

Aneri Pattani

Correction: A June 18 newsletter item misstated when peak COVID-19 hospitalizations occurred in Pennsylvania. That happened on April 27. 

From across the state

» Amid the continuing unrest in Philadelphia, The Inquirer has this must-read on how armed vigilantes in the Fishtown neighborhood assaulted protesters in front of police but were not arrested, sparking multiple investigations.

» Some cosmetologists are being denied licenses because they have a criminal record, NBC News reports. A bill addressing the problem received final approval this week, and Gov. Tom Wolf is expected to sign it.

» Lancaster residents are calling for the local school board to change the name of a middle school named for an 18th-century slave owner, according to LNP. Over 80 residents have signed an online petition in support.

Best of the rest across Pa.

» CAPITAL-STAR: A state board is sidelining police officers with mental health histories
» LNP: What are police talking about on encrypted radios? The public may soon know
» WNEP: Unemployment claims in Pa. have leveled off, but many still waiting
» PA POST: DACA recipients celebrate U.S. Supreme Court decision
» GO ERIE: Erie police officer fired over email about race, protests
» GO ERIE: Erie County sewage shows huge spike in COVID-19
» PUBLICSOURCE: Pittsburgh's reckoning with symbols of enslavement and racism

Yaasmeen Piper


Send your answers to newsletters@spotlightpa.org.

Home run (Case No. 44)Janet left home running. She ran a ways and turned left, ran the same distance and turned left, ran the same distance and turned left again. She was home again, but there were two masked people. Who were they?
Stumped? Get a hint. Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.

Last week's answer: None of them will get the banana; it is a coconut tree.

Congrats to Megan S. who will receive Spotlight PA swag (when we reopen our office!). Others who answered correctly: Philip C., Jonathan N., Rick S., Jaymes D., Michelle M., Joanne W., Drew C., George S., Sandy O., Michael H., Andy C., Jeff W., Deborah D., Kenneth J., Annette I., Hagan H., William D., Lou R., Jeffery F., Jack F., Edward P., Joseph S., Carl B., Pat N., Douglas W., Barbara W., Brett H., Dennis F., Norman S.A., Edward N., Rebecca D.
» This week's Riddler hint: The title is a clue.

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