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Pa. county sues Wolf for COVID-19 funds

The Investigator

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

July 23, 2020 | spotlightpa.org

Get ready for yet another test of Gov. Tom Wolf's emergency powers in court.

Lebanon County this week sued the Democrat after he withheld nearly $13 million in coronavirus relief funding from the Central Pennsylvania locale. The reason? The county's commissioners in May voted to unilaterally lift state-mandated pandemic restrictions without the administration's permission, a move they're now calling merely symbolic.

Wolf has been unapologetic about withholding the funds, saying he warned counties this would be a consequence for disobeying the state's shutdown order. 

While GOP lawmakers say the governor has no authority to hold back the money, his administration has pointed to a section of Pennsylvania law that gives a governor greatly expanded powers during a disaster declaration. 

This is far from the first time these powers have been challenged in court since the beginning of the pandemic. Wolf has yet to lose a case. 

Sarah Anne Hughes


"This will have serious impacts on everyday people."

— Emma Horst-Martz, of PennPIRG, on the need for Pa. to provide financial assistance to utility customers before lifting a moratorium on shutoffs. 
DOUBLE TROUBLE: Pennsylvania's seven-day average of new coronavirus cases is double what it was last month. While the spring surge was driven by infections in the eastern part of the state, western counties are leading the increases this time around. 

Follow all the trends statewide and in your county with our coronavirus tracker.

More from Spotlight PA

» More help may be on the way for Pennsylvanians struggling to pay utility bills
Death data is still lagging in Pa. The state hasn’t made it easy to find out just how badly.

When a person dies from COVID-19, it takes time for their death to be added to Pennsylvania’s official count — in some cases, months.

Between July 1 and July 23, the state reported 430 new COVID-19 deaths. Twelve of those occurred in April. Another 16 were from May.

These additions have trickled in slowly, creeping into the state’s death count often one or two at a time. It’s unclear how many more months-old deaths the state has yet to report, making it difficult to understand the virus’ real-time toll.

The state has struggled to report deaths soon after they occur since the beginning of the pandemic, blaming challenges on a disjointed web of technologies.

But to fully understand how severe these lags are, I’ve had to do my own work. While the state reports the number of deaths added to the official count daily, it doesn’t consistently tell the public when those deaths occurred.

At the beginning of June, the health department launched a new COVID-19 data dashboard with an interactive chart that shows how many people have died each day. (Previously, the state made that information available only through an image of a chart, making it impossible to pull precise numbers.) 

The new version has allowed me to hover over the data points to view each day’s toll. It’s an improvement from before but still a tedious task, so in June, I went digging for the feed that pushed updates to the chart.

For more than a month, that publicly available feed made it easy for me to track when deaths actually occurred, and I monitored changes each day. Then, last week, the feed disappeared.

It wasn’t a glitch, the health department told me. The public’s access to the feed had been cut, and the clean, machine-readable digest of those numbers would no longer be available, a spokesperson said. 

It’s one of many instances of the state dropping the ball on best data practices. Instead of making its COVID-19 data easy to view and scrutinize, the state has once again limited access, leaving the public to wonder what else we might not be seeing.

Sara Simon

From across the state

» Front-line workers are eligible for an additional $3 an hour of “hazard pay” under a $50 million federally funded program, according to The Morning Call. The program, which was announced by Gov. Tom Wolf last week, will run for 10 weeks with each employee eligible for up to $1,200 in extra pay. 

» Losing an extra $600 per week in unemployment benefits has some Pennsylvanians “terrified,” WHYY reports. The benefits are set to expire July 25, but with many still unemployed, residents are urging Congress to pass another stimulus package. At the same time, thousands are still struggling to collect unemployment at all, according to PennLive.

 » The data used to track coronavirus deaths in nursing homes is riddled with errors, TribLive finds. In one case, the state publicly reported a death toll in the thousands for a facility that only houses 138 residents.

Best of the rest across Pa.

» CAPITAL-STAR: Reformers say probation bill doesn’t fix the broken system

» CAPITAL-STAR: Pennsylvania schools may scramble to find subs in the fall

» INQUIRER: Educators are wary of pandemic back-to-school plans

» MORNING CALL: Pennsylvania is not returning to the red phase

» PENNLIVE: Former Pa. senator sentenced to prison in child porn case

» PGH CITY PAPER: Thousands of Pa. immigrants may be unable to vote

» PUBLIC SOURCE: Charts reveal how fast UPMC has grown

» WLVR: DA finds no grounds for charges against Allentown police officers in viral video

Yaasmeen Piper


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