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College COVID-19 outbreaks threaten nearby communities

The Investigator

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

Sept. 17, 2020 | spotlightpa.org
Republicans scored a victory this week when a federal judge ruled key components of Gov. Tom Wolf's COVID-19 strategy were unconstitutional

But here's the context: The win could be short-lived, legal experts told Spotlight PA, as the ruling leans heavily on precedent that hasn't been invoked or respected since the early 1900s. Should higher courts take up the Wolf administration's appeal, the decision could face some tough scrutiny. 

On another front, we've received a flood of personal stories of Pennsylvanians falling behind on rent with few ways to dig out or avoid eviction once a moratorium expires. Spotlight PA reporter Charlotte Keith recently spoke with Joseph Fallacaro, a Bucks County father who received a last-minute reprieve from losing his home. His case demonstrates the gray area created by a federal moratorium on evictions that's in place until the end of the year.

Finally this week, the campaign of Joe Scarnati, the leader of the Pennsylvania Senate, is suing two journalists (including one from Spotlight PA) after attempting to charge thousands of dollars to turn over public records on how it spends campaign cash. The debt collection action comes despite the Department of State ruling the campaign cannot charge the fees it seeks.

By naming the two reporters individually, the case could have a detrimental affect on their personal credit reports, while at the same time making it more difficult for the public to access campaign finance records. Many of you have reached out in support of Spotlight PA, and we appreciate the love. If you value our work and want to help us fight back, please become a monthly donor now.

Sarah Anne Hughes of Spotlight PA

"We’re living in a weird climate today, where authoritarian practices seem to be picking up speed."

— David Cuillier, a public records expert from the University of Arizona, on a lawsuit brought by a top Republican's campaign that names a Spotlight PA journalist

Latest on COVID-19

While the number of daily cases has increased in recent days, driven in part by outbreaks on college campuses, hospitalizations and the number of people on ventilators because of COVID-19 has held steady throughout August and September. The overall rolling average rate of new cases in the state has been within the same range for the past several weeks.

» Follow the latest state data with our coronavirus tracker, and sign up for weekly alerts with the latest data localized for your county

More from Spotlight PA

» Top Pa. GOP lawmaker taps politically connected lobbyist to be chief of staff

Pa.’s daily COVID-19 numbers are rising. But there’s more to the story. 

On its page monitoring the coronavirus outbreak across the U.S., the New York Times has a section no place wants to be mentioned in: “Where There May Be Bad News Ahead.”

The paper lists metropolitan areas where new cases are rising fastest across the country. And as of Thursday, the No. 5 spot belonged to State College in north-central Pennsylvania.

Centre County, where State College is located, is seeing “substantial” community transmission of COVID-19, according to the state Department of Health. After months of relatively low numbers, the county is now reporting dozens — and even hundreds — of new cases per day.

As Pennsylvania sees these increases, it’s worth reading and investigating more before jumping to conclusions. In this case, there’s a big detail that needs to be mentioned: college students. 

State College is home to Penn State University’s main campus, which resumed in-person classes on Aug. 24. Since that month began, 1,145 students there have tested positive for COVID-19. 

Penn State isn’t particularly unique. Bloomsburg University in Columbia County — which, like Centre County, is located in the north-central section of the state and is seeing substantial community transmission — abandoned in-person classes after dozens of students tested positive. Temple University did the same after an outbreak that Philadelphia officials blamed for the city’s recent case increase.

Health Secretary Rachel Levine on Monday said that in April, just 7% of cases in north-central Pennsylvania were in people between 19 and 24. So far in September, that number has skyrocketed to 69%. She said the department is seeing similar trends statewide. 

“The most significant difference between the case increases that we are seeing now and what we saw in April is that colleges and universities are back in session,” Levine said. 

While it may be easy to dismiss the increase as an inevitability among a population that appears to be less susceptible to serious short-term complications (although our understanding of the risk is constantly evolving), there are major implications for the surrounding communities.  

Jesse Barlow, president of State College Borough Council and a professor at Penn State, said community spread is a big concern. While the borough has passed its own mitigation ordinances, Barlow said “a lot of our effort relies upon cooperation with Penn State [which] is doing the testing, tracing, and isolating of students to prevent further spread of the virus.”

“So far, the outbreak is mostly confined to the student population. Some of them are undoubtedly vulnerable to it and I hope all of them have good recoveries,” he said. “However, many of the people living close to campus are elderly and are very vulnerable to the virus. A widespread outbreak there could be very destructive.”

Sarah Anne Hughes of Spotlight PA

From across the state

» The fatal shooting of 27-year-old Ricardo Munoz by a Lancaster police officer set off days of protests and calls for justice in the city, LNP | LancasterOnline reports. Munoz’s family said he struggled with his mental health and needed help. Several protesters charged with rioting, arson, and vandalism are being held on $1 million bail, which itself caused a lot of outrage.

» Chester County spent over $13 million in federal aid for coronavirus antibody testing only to shelve the program a month later, a Philadelphia Inquirer investigation found. An outside biotech firm that was responsible for the testing produced false-positive results, a former county official claims.

» Five to 10% of Pennsylvania mail-in ballots could be rejected come Nov. 3., the Bucks County Courier Times reports. Members of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission predict a flurry of legal battles over signatures and stamps that may block some ballots.

More good reads

» CAPITAL-STAR: Discredited doctor speaks to Pa. House about trans health care

» FIVETHIRTYEIGHT: Why Pennsylvania could decide the 2020 presidential election

» INQUIRER: Study finds that workers are being replaced by robots during the pandemic

» PGH CITY PAPER: Steelers will display Antwon Rose II’s name on helmets

» WHYY: For many Latinos in Philadelphia, getting sick is not an option

» YORK DAILY RECORD: Pa. militia groups target Black Lives Matter movement

Yaasmeen Piper of Spotlight PA


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