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'Overwhelming' spread of virus means Pa. needs more tracers

The Investigator

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

July 30, 2020 | spotlightpa.org

We've been hammering away on the state's troubles with contact tracing, and last week, our reporting that Pennsylvania reopened without enough contact tracers was confirmed in a health department document. 

Health officials, who have long defended their efforts, conceded the state needs hundreds, if not thousands, more workers to contain "overwhelming" coronavirus spread. Many other states have already built more robust forces.

This is a good time to once again remind everyone of how Pennsylvania has for years undervalued and under-funded its public health system, including slashing its ranks of public health nurses — the same ones who do the contact tracing in the majority of the state.

It's a story we plan to stay on top of in the coming months as Pennsylvania continues reopening businesses and attempts to resume in-person education.

» If you value this kind of accountability reporting, please consider making a monthly donation to help us keep digging.

On the transparency front, with just hours to spare, Gov. Tom Wolf on Sunday announced he would allow a bill ensuring access to public records during declared emergencies to become law.

But he called the measure "ill-conceived," "poorly drafted," and “no more than a talking point for many in the General Assembly.” He also rightly noted the irony in the legislature demanding more transparency when it's largely exempt from the public records law, something we've noted again and again.

Open-records requests are critical to Spotlight PA's work, especially when agencies are evasive or provide bad information through their press officers. Even with the change, however, the law remains relatively weak, giving agencies numerous exemptions to cite in order to keep information secret. 

Christopher Baxter


"I have no room in my heart for hatred. And frankly, I do not have time for intolerance."

— Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Rachel Levine on recent transphobic comments and personal attacks
RISING IN THE EAST: Our county trend tracker shows consistent increases in several eastern counties, notably Philadelphia and Delaware. There are also notable increases in Central PA in Franklin, Centre, and Cumberland counties.

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

More from Spotlight PA

» Lawmaker mimics call for transgender acceptance to defend not wearing a mask
» Pa. health secretary denounces transphobic attacks: ‘Our children are watching’
The Pa. legislative races to watch this fall

With less than 100 days to go until the November election, several legislative races are shaping up to be nailbiters that illustrate both parties’ changing political fortunes across Pennsylvania. 

Democrats hope to pick up seats in the GOP-controlled state Senate and regain a majority in the state House by flipping nine districts — while holding on to vulnerable ones in the northeast and southwest that President Donald Trump won in 2016. 

“People are watching this election closely because even if Democrats don't gain a majority in the House, they are going to get much closer,” said Larry Ceisler, a public affairs consultant and longtime statewide political observer. 

Ceisler said a strong performance from Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden in the suburbs could make it very hard for down-ballot Republicans to hang on. But there is a wild card that could help the GOP: The legislature eliminated straight-party voting — an option that favored Democrats — in 2019 as part of a larger election package. 

Here are three races to watch to see how these trends play out: 

House District 18, Bucks County
» The incumbent: Republican Kathleen Tomlinson, who won a special election in April
» The challenger: Democrat Harold Hayes, a union plumber who lost the special
» The situation: Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, won the district by a wide margin in 2018, yet Republicans were able to hold on to the seat this spring. Democrats cried foul over holding the election at the height of the pandemic and think the district will be one of several pickups in the southeast this fall. 

Senate District 15, Perry and Dauphin Counties
» The incumbent: Republican John DiSanto, who ousted a Democrat in 2016
» The challenger: Democrat George Scott, who unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 2018
» The situation: This is a district Wolf won easily in 2018 despite Trump’s 2016 victory there. It’s a test of whether the Democrats’ gains in the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh suburbs can extend to Central Pennsylvania. 

House District 72, Cambria County
» The incumbent: Democrat Frank Burns, who’s held the seat for more than a decade
» The challenger: Republican Howard Terndrup, a former teacher
» The situation: This district is one of many in the northeast that went for Trump in 2016 and are vulnerable to flipping to the GOP. Republican Scott Wagner, who unsuccessfully challenged Wolf in 2018, also won this district. Losses in districts like the 72nd could negate any Democratic gains in the suburbs.

Cynthia Fernandez 

From across the state

» Major Pennsylvania lobbyists collected millions of federal dollars meant to help small businesses survive the pandemic. Data from the U.S. Treasury and Small Business Administration shows over 26,000 small businesses and organizations in the state have received $150,000 or more since April. Nineteen of those recipients are registered to lobby Pennsylvania politicians and shape state policy, WHYY reports.

» The state’s new hazard pay program benefits many essential workers, but thousands are still left out. PennLive reports that pharmacists and warehouse workers, among others, are not eligible for the additional cash.

» Superintendents across the state are asking the Wolf administration for clear guidance on how — and if — to reopen schools this fall, according to the Associated Press. Among their questions is what to do in case a teacher contracts the coronavirus.

Best of the rest across Pa.

» CAPITAL-STAR: Court ruling on Uber driver could remake gig economy

» INQUIRER: Ex-judge says chief justice complained she had a ‘minority agenda’

» PA POST: Hundreds of county inmates are still in solitary-like lockdown 

» PENNLIVE: Plaques detailing former House leaders' crimes disappear from Capitol

» PENN RECORD: Potter County asks court to dismiss Trump mail-in ballot suit

» WHYY: Philly families are living with the heartbreak of COVID-19 and gun violence

Yaasmeen Piper


Send your answers to newsletters@spotlightpa.org.

On a Roll (Case No. 49): Every day a skateboarder would carry a bag of groceries down the street on a different skateboard. A police officer finally stopped her one day and accused her of stealing. What did the officer suspect she was stealing?
Stumped? Get a hintFeeling smart? Challenge a friend.

Last week's answer: A grandmother, mother and daughter went shopping. The mother is both a daughter (of the grandmother) and mother of the second daughter.

Congrats to Carl B., who will receive Spotlight PA swag (when we reopen our office!). Others who answered correctly: Joseph A., Tom G., Marvin S., Roseanne D., Robert K., Jaymes D., Allen S., Dorothy K., Edward N., Rhonda H., Paulette S., Laurie S., Dennis F., Melanie B., Rebecca D., Wendy G., Annette I., Lou R., Mary B., Denise N., Hagan H., Barbara M., Marlin E., Robert S., David T., Melissa J., Arthur M., Philip C., Michelle M., Phil F., Karen K., Terese M., Joseph S., Lois P., Casey P., Andrew C., Anna-Marie S., Judy A., Karen A., Kenneth J., Jonathan N., Gerry W., Frank H., Katherine W., Michael H., Amy C., Edward Z., Rick S., Norman A., George S., Deb F., Donald H., Dawn M., Lisa M., Pat C., Jason P., Frank E., Andrew B., and Joan C. 
» This week's Riddler hint: Consider the whole picture. 

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