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Penn State backtracks on controversial COVID-19 waiver

The Investigator

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

August 13, 2020 | spotlightpa.org

If you get the coronavirus, don't blame us.

That was Penn State's message to its thousands of students coming back to campus after the university decided to hold some in-person classes for the fall semester. Before students could participate, they were being required to "assume any and all risk" of the coronavirus, which students, faculty, and legal experts said amounted to a waiver freeing Penn State of liability

That was, until Spotlight PA wrote about it.

On Thursday, the university reversed course, saying it never intended the agreement to serve as a waiver of liability and that it would offer a second, amended agreement with different language. While some other colleges and universities across the U.S. are requiring similar waivers (and have similarly backtracked), students and legal experts say Penn State's crossed the line.

» Spotlight PA produces accountability journalism that gets results, and we rely on your support. If you value this work, please make a donation today.

On another coronavirus front, we're out with an in-depth story today on how some drug rehabs in Pennsylvania are failing to protect patients, putting them in the difficult position of having to choose between risking getting sick to get treatment, or foregoing help for their substance use.

Since March, the state agency charged with overseeing facilities has received 170 complaints about failures to implement protective measures. So how many citations have they issued? Exactly zero.

Finally this morning, we're thrilled to announce a new partnership with Triblive/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the centerpiece of our ongoing expansion in Western Pa. And we're welcoming one of their reporters, Jamie Martines, to the Spotlight PA team to ensure the region is robustly represented in our coverage.

In total, we now provide high-quality statehouse and statewide reporting free of charge to 48 newsrooms in communities across the state, making us the largest collaborative journalism effort of our kind in the United States.

Christopher Baxter, Editor in Chief


"The first thing I would urge is that they do not sign this."

— Heidi Li Feldman, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center, on Penn State requiring students to sign a coronavirus liability waiver
MIXED BAG: The overall trend in Pennsylvania has improved since the most recent surge, but the number of new cases in 14 counties are still on the upswing. Follow all the trends statewide with our coronavirus tracker.

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All of the different coronavirus tests, explained

“Do I have COVID-19?”

In Pennsylvania and across the country, coronavirus test results are sometimes taking weeks to come back. Those delays are frustrating for those who might be sick, and just plain unacceptable to state officials.

“Two weeks, that’s almost useless,” Gov. Tom Wolf said recently.

There’s a promising solution, state officials announced this week, and it’s coupled with an economic boon. A company in the Lehigh Valley, OraSure Technologies, is expanding its operations and working to develop two kinds of rapid COVID-19 tests.

But there’s a catch.

Neither antibody tests nor antigen tests — the two kinds OraSure is developing — are the gold standard for determining if a person actively has COVID-19.

Antibody tests search for past infections, which may be helpful as people need to wager how much risk they are willing to take in getting together with loved ones or returning to school or to work. But antibody tests cannot provide insight into whether people currently have the coronavirus.

Antigen tests, on the other hand, are starting to make some waves. Like PCR tests — the most common and reliable type of COVID-19 test — antigen tests look for active infections, but they don’t have the same sensitivity levels as PCR tests. Put another way, they can’t detect COVID-19 as well.

At a news conference Aug. 6, Health Secretary Rachel Levine warned Pennsylvanians that antibody and antigen tests might not be useful in every situation. 

Regarding antigen tests specifically, Levine said the state health department has heard that the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services plans to send antigen test kits to Pennsylvania nursing homes, which she said is “going to be a challenge.”

“What we’re concerned about is the sensitivity and the specificity of those tests, meaning the false negative rate and the false positive rate,” Levine said.

According to the health department, positive antigen tests are only included in the state’s COVID-19 count as probable cases, not confirmed cases, and all data-driven decisions about reopening rely on confirmed numbers from PCR tests.

The state’s negative count, a department spokesperson said, only includes negative PCR test results.

So, though the expansion of rapid testing in Pennsylvania is an exciting development and will certainly help to identify people likely to spread the virus, it might not be the silver bullet Pennsylvanians are hoping for.

For quick reference:

» PCR tests: The gold standard in COVID-19 testing. PCR tests are widely regarded as the most reliable tests, but turnaround times can lag.

» Antigen tests: The “rapid” tests that are starting to become more available across the country. Antigen tests are easy to administer and quick to turn around, but they aren’t as sensitive as PCR tests, meaning they might not be able to detect low levels of the virus, potentially leading to a high rate of false negatives.

» Antibody tests: Potentially useful in determining whether you may have already had COVID-19, though scientists warn there is still a lot we don’t know about what testing positive — or negative — for antibodies might mean.

Sara Simon

From across the state

»  Staff at Devereux, the nation’s leading behavioral health nonprofit for youth, have been abusing children in their care for years. According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, at least 41 children as young as 12 have been raped or sexually assaulted within the past 25 years.

» Pennsylvania lawmakers are delaying major changes needed to accommodate what’s anticipated to be a large number of mail-in ballots come November. PA Post reports that lawmakers are still divided on what steps to take before Election Day, despite months of discussions. 

» The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) said canceling youth sports isn’t going to eliminate their risk for the coronavirus, according to The Morning Call. In a letter to Gov. Wolf, the PIAA said sports should be allowed since children are going to play regardless and an educational setting might be the safest place to do so. 

More good reads

» AP: Districts mull over how to get bus-riding students to school safely

» CAPITAL-STAR: Lawmakers scrutinize Health Dept. over testing delays

» PA POST: Central Pa. cities are lagging on census data 

» LNP: Lancaster County will not open police communications to the public 

» NBC10: Rejected Phila. police recruits call out system for racism 

» PUBLICSOURCE: PGH police are using social media to identify protestors 

» WHYY: New Census deadline has advocates working overtime

Yaasmeen Piper


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THE WHEELS ON THE BUS (Case No. 51): You're a bus driver, you pick up 11 people, drop 3 off, pick up another 9 people, drop 2 off, pick up 12 people and drop 7 off. What's the bus driver's name?
Stumped? Get a hintFeeling smart? Challenge a friend.

Last week's answer: In exactly one week, it will again be just before midnight, so Tayvon will be right in his prediction that it will not be sunny.

Congrats to Steven B., who will receive Spotlight PA swag (when we reopen our office!). Others who answered correctly: Michelle M., Jonathan N., John L., Lindsey S., Jim S., Lois P., Drew C., Kimberly J., Rick A., Carl B., Marlin E., Beverly M., George S., Joseph S., Wendy G., Bob K., Hagan H., Kenneth J., Jim W., Marian S., Roseanne D., Deborah D., Lynda G., Marge P., Barbara W., Judy A., Allen S., Frank E., Maria Z., Katherine W., Jaymes D., Rebecca D., Dave D., Dan S., Lou R., Edward N., Annette I., Maggie E., Dennis F., William D., Vincent S., Lisa M., Mary H., Joseph M., Mark C., Jim R., Michael H., and Joseph A.
» This week's Riddler hint: Mirror, mirror, on the wall...

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