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Why Pa.'s COVID-19 death data has been so troubled

The Investigator

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

Sept. 24, 2020 | spotlightpa.org

In 2017, Pennsylvania earned a dubious distinction from the CDC — slowest in the county to report its deaths. That's a serious problem when death data becomes central to identifying and responding to disease outbreaks.

Turns out, the state had already launched its solution to the problem — a new Electronic Death Registration System that would allow funeral directors, physicians, coroners, and more to quickly and directly submit death data, vastly improving the time it would take to respond to an outbreak.

But a new investigation by Sara Simon of Spotlight PA and Ryan Briggs and Nina Feldman of WHYY News found health officials abandoned their urgency in rolling out the electronic system, so when COVID-19 arrived in the state — and data became central to saving lives —  EDRS was still largely voluntary.

As a result, the state’s official death count unexpectedly fluctuated during the pandemic’s deadliest months, fueling conspiracy theories and undermining public trust in the numbers.

On another coronavirus note, Logan Hullinger for The York Dispatch reports state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale might turn over to law enforcement some attempts by lawmakers, lobbyists, and other political interests to influence the state's coronavirus waiver program. DePasquale is conducting an audit of the process, with an initial report expected next month.

While the coronavirus and the state's response has largely consumed the legislature's focus, lawmakers this week did move on one piece of stalled reform. Spotlight PA reporter Cynthia Fernandez reports on a bill making its way through the Senate that would check the most egregious gerrymandering practices and boost public transparency when lawmakers draw new political maps next year.

Sarah Anne Hughes of Spotlight PA


"I’ve mentioned it to them, and I hope they’re thinking about it, too."

— Lawrence Tabas, chairman of the Pennsylvania Republican Party, on the possibility of the state legislature naming loyal electors, essentially bypassing the results of the popular vote 

Latest on COVID-19

Our county-by-county maps of new coronavirus cases and deaths show a few areas worth watching across the state, including York County. Health officials reported six new deaths there yesterday, but officials wouldn't say exactly when or where they occurred, The York Dispatch reports.

» 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

» Guide: Everything you need to know if you’re facing eviction in Pennsylvania
» Victories for Democrats might have closed the door on more election reform

With reform stalled by the GOP, Pa. candidates flush with campaign cash can once against spend it on just about anything

Election Day is just over a month away, and candidates across the country are ramping up their fundraising and spending. Here in Pennsylvania, candidates have a rather unique advantage: They can raise unlimited campaign cash, and there are few limits on how they can spend it. 

Under Pennsylvania election law, the only restriction is that campaign money be used for “influencing the outcome of an election” — and some candidates have broadly interpreted that, using donor dollars to finance everything from clothing to trips.

Sometimes, that spending is not even detailed in campaign finance reports.

A nationwide survey conducted late last year by The Caucus and Spotlight PA found that Pennsylvania is the only state that doesn’t have monetary limits on campaign contributions, and also doesn’t explicitly prohibit candidates from spending campaign cash for personal use.

A joint investigation by the newsrooms uncovered how Pennsylvania’s most powerful state lawmakers obscured details of how and where they spent millions in campaign money. The report found the legislators used donor dollars for, among other items, country club memberships, sporting tickets, pricey dinners, and overseas trips. 

After the series, Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D., Allegheny) proposed sweeping campaign-finance reforms that would set limits on political contributions, increase transparency, and ban candidates from using campaign cash for their personal benefit.

Costa’s bill would define “personal use” to include home mortgages and rent, clothing, non-campaign vehicle expenses, country club memberships, admission to sporting events, vacations, and non-campaign related trips.

The bill would also place monetary limits on donations by individuals and political action committees. 

But with only a handful of voting days left in the 2019-20 legislative session, it is unlikely the measure will get a floor vote. Any bill that hasn’t been signed into law before the session ends will need to be introduced again when the next two-year session begins in 2021.

That’s not at all surprising, as these reforms require lawmakers to essentially place new limits on themselves, something they have historically been unwilling to do.

Angela Couloumbis of Spotlight PA

From across the state

» Election officials warn that Pennsylvania could face “electoral chaos” similar to Florida in 2000, Politico reports. The state Supreme Court’s ruling against “naked ballots” — or mail-in-ballots without a proper envelope — could lead election officials to throw out 100,000 votes in the battleground state. Here's a good primer on "naked ballots" and how to make sure our vote is counted.

» Over the past two years, in at least four Pa. prisons, those in custody have accused members of the Correctional Emergency Response Team (CERT) of hate acts, The Philadelphia Inquirer reports. Along with destroying personal property such as photos or legal documents, inmates report that some CERT officers drew swastikas or racist and homophobic comments on their photos and even tied a sheet to mimic a noose.  

» Federal officials have rejected a plan to continue paying Pennsylvania families — most of whom live in high-poverty school districts — to make up for the loss of school lunches, the Post-Gazette reports. A representative from the U.S. Department of Agriculture said the state’s plan does not meet “statutory requirements,” and the program is set to end at the end of the month. 

More good reads

» AP: Catholics are a pivotal swing vote in battleground states

» BILLY PENN: Pandemic hits young adults coming out of foster care the worst

» NBC NEWS: Top elections officials in Pa. are fleeing before Nov. 3

» PENNLIVE: Bill freezing pay for top Pa. officials heading to Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk

» PUBLICSOURCE: Pittsburgh jail sued by inmates with psychiatric disabilities

» READING EAGLE: About 1,000 students leave Kutztown U over coronavirus outbreak

» WHYY: Philly residents upset after city disables tool to search for property owners

» WITFPa. GOP to appeal ruling on mail-in ballot deadline to U.S. Supreme Court

Yaasmeen Piper of Spotlight PA


Send your answers to riddler@spotlightpa.org.

TASTY MATH (Case No. 57): If you divide the circumference of a pumpkin by its diameter, what do you get?
Stumped? Get a hintFeeling smart? Challenge a friend.

Last week's answer: A living room (but kudos to the other creative answers!)
Congrats to Rani S., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who have answered correctly: Michael H., Rosemary W., Lynn R., Joan C., Karen K., James H., Dennis P., Judy A., Sandy O., Eileen D., Annette I., Claudia M., Kathy W., Hagan H., Julie R., Mike T., Rick S., Jim R., Drew C., Amanda V., John L., Alice O., Jaymes D., Mary L., Melanie B., Karen W., Ed N., Chris K., Robert K., Jody L., Jon N., Jason C., James E., Joseph S., Deb W., Lou R., Jim S., Andrew B., Geoffrey M., Mark C., and R.D.
» This week's Riddler hint: No calculations needed.

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