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Pa. health secretary departs with mixed record on COVID-19

The Investigator

January 21, 2021 | spotlightpa.org

Levine's record, policy defended, redistricting 101, Pa.'s public records czar, dueling vaccine sites, shifting guidelines, and a nursing home tragedy.

In her farewell note, Secretary of Health Rachel Levine reflected with pride on her years fighting the opioid epidemic, preventing diseases, and addressing health equity issues.

“And I am extremely proud of the work we have done during the last year to save lives in the face of the COVID-19 global pandemic,” she concluded.

Levine, tapped by President Joe Biden to serve as assistant secretary of health, had the unenviable task of leading Pennsylvania’s public health efforts as the coronavirus sickened hundreds of thousands and killed nearly 20,000. She’s been praised for her "steady, matter-of-fact approach," and for handling with grace transphobic attacks as she became the public face of the pandemic. 

But as Spotlight PA has reported, the health department under Levine also struggled to quickly and effectively deal with the COVID-19 crisis inside nursing homes. 

Last spring, we revealed that a plan to deploy strike teams to homes with cases was never fully implemented, and a similar — though far more limited — effort wasn’t activated until mid-April, long after major outbreaks had already taken hold. In fact, the coronavirus exploited the department's failure to address long-standing issues with oversight and staffing

It wasn't until May — after Levine said the idea of testing residents and staff at nursing homes was unrealistic — that the state announced a testing strategy that advocates said was insufficient. A universal plan wasn't implemented until July, an "incredibly slow" pace, one expert said.  

Health officials also failed to safeguard the public's trust in COVID-19 data, as Levine several times spoke vaguely of "reconciling" numbers from different sources as they dramatically changed. One underlying issue? Officials had failed to fully implement an electronic death reporting system

Gov. Tom Wolf said he hopes to announce a replacement for Levine later this week. Whoever that person is, Spotlight PA will be here to act as a watchdog. 

Sarah Anne Hughes, Spotlight PA


"The only reason why we knew of the stroke was because a friend of the family also has a father who’s an inmate at the prison."

—Briana Hafiz, who has tried to get information about the health of her incarcerated father-in-law since the beginning of 2021, with no success

» COVID-19 UPDATE: Keep up with our coronavirus tracker, and sign up for alerts for your county. We're currently working on more resources to help you track the vaccine distribution across Pennsylvania.

» Pa. prisons don’t always tell families when inmates are sick. Officials are defending that policy.

» Redistricting will be the definitive political fight of 2021 in Pennsylvania. Here’s how it’ll work.

Q&A: Meet Pa.'s new open records czar

After six years, the Office of Open Records has a new executive director — Liz Wagenseller, former chief of staff to ex-Auditor General Eugene DePasquale. The agency plays a critical role for journalists and citizens whose requests for public records are denied, they believe, unfairly. 

Spotlight PA spoke with Wagenseller about her new role. Our interview, conducted via email, has been shortened for space and clarity. We'll post a full version to our website. —Sarah Anne Hughes, Spotlight PA

For those who don't know, how would you describe the role of the Office of Open Records?

The role of the Office of Open Records is to promote citizen access to government information. Individuals can request public records from a local or commonwealth agency, and if denied, they can appeal to our office.

The main activity of the office is to decide these appeals and determine whether the information should be released. The OOR also provides extensive trainings on the Right-to-Know law as well as the Sunshine Act, which governs which meetings and hearings should be open to the public. 

What are your priorities for your first few months in your new role?

My primary goal is to ensure that the office continues to operate seamlessly. Like the former executive director, Erik Arneson, I plan to improve an already outstanding office. I am committed to maintaining the timely issuance of appeal decisions, as well as finding new techniques to effectively and efficiently advance open government in Pennsylvania.  

Additionally, within the next few months, I intend to start the process to put OOR regulations into effect. The regulations will simplify the OOR appeal process by addressing the steps an agency must take at the request stage to properly prepare for an appeal. They will also outline the filing of an appeal, the appeal process itself, and the process of seeking judicial review of an OOR decision.  

Finally, I plan to strengthen and expand transparency and accountability by coordinating with lawmakers, public officials, and open government advocates to ensure the best application of the RTK law, as well as ensure the OOR is properly funded and able to meets its statutory duties.

Do you think the legislature could improve the state's Right-to-Know law? If so, what changes would you support or recommend?

The RTK law has improved each level of Pennsylvania government. I never settle for complacency and there is always room for improvement. 

My predecessors worked closely with the General Assembly on suggested improvements to the RTK law and I look forward to continuing that dialogue. I am especially concerned about commercial entities using the RTK law in a way that strays from its purpose.

I support addressing the use of the RTK law by inmates, an issue that requires balancing proper access with proper use of the process. Sen. John Blake (D., Lackawanna) introduced legislation last session that addressed these issues along with others, and I will support its passage if again introduced.

A TALE OF TWO SITES: In January, a startup launched a website where people could register for a COVID-19 vaccine, it said, “in lockstep with the Philadelphia Department of Public Health.” That's not actually the case, WHYY reports, and the city said it's not using the data collected.

REFUND REQUESTED: Chester County officials are suing for an $11 million refund, claiming a Malvern-based company provided just a fraction of the 1 million antibody tests it promised to deliver, The Inquirer reports. The company, Advaite Inc., said the county failed to pick up available test kits.

SHIFTING GUIDELINES: A lack of a central registry, shifting priorities, and public confusion are complicating the COVID-19 vaccine rollout in Pennsylvania, the Post-Gazette reports. Most independent drug stores are still waiting for state approval to give the shots, and pharmacists are being forced to act as bouncers. 

DELAYED PAYMENTS: Recipients of unemployment benefits provided by two federal pandemic programs haven't received payments since the end of December. WGAL reports that the state must "revamp the computer system that issues benefits for the program" and that there is no timetable to resume the payments.

WHAT WENT WRONG? Two-thirds of the residents at a Lancaster County nursing home died from COVID-19, a tragedy advocates and surviving family believe was caused by inadequate staffing, LancasterOnline reports. Families of the 39 residents who died are now considering legal action.

» AP: Pennsylvania statewide row officers sworn for 4-year terms

» INQUIRER: Cop who beat Temple student cleared of criminal charges

» PENNLIVE: Pa. state senator dies from brain cancer at age 49

» TRIBLIVE: Teachers struggle to get information on vaccine distribution

» WAPO: Justice Dept. ends Pa. election investigation

Send your answers to riddler@spotlightpa.org. Love the riddler? Chip in and become a member of Spotlight PA so we can keep the good times rolling.

DATE DEBATE (Case No. 76): In the year 2000, a person is 15 years old. In the year 2005, that same person is 10 years old. How is this possible? (And for a bonus, what precise year was the person born?)
Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.

Last week's answer: Nicolas (but we'll accept Scolani, though we don't know anyone named Scolani...)
Congrats to Sherri S., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: Joseph S., Hagan H., Michael H., Eileen D., William D., Geoffrey M., Mary Ellen T., Mary S., Jon N., Steve B., Irene T., John D., Ira B., Kevin H., Beth T., Claudia S., Philip C., Mary B.Lynda G., John H., Jason C., Bruce B., Dave T., Joan C., Roseanne D., and Marvin S. 
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