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Why Pa.'s public health system is slow to change

Plus, the missing context in State Police oversight reports.

A weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA

March 3, 2022 | spotlightpa.org

Health report, legal challenges, redistricting event, indoor masking, missing context, wrongly banned, mail voting update, and Russian investments.
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Roughly half of Pennsylvania's nearly 13 million residents live in a county or city covered by a local health department. The other half — many of them living in rural areas — rely solely on the state for a limited number of public health resources and services.

As investigative health reporter Jamies Martines found, the pandemic led some counties to contemplate creating their own local health departments — only to later scrap those plans.

She talked to public health experts, researchers, and local and state health officials to probe how local health departments work, when they can be useful, and why some counties chose to walk away.

Also this week, redistricting reporter Kate Huangpu has a complete guide to the remaining legal challenges to Pennsylvania's congressional and legislative maps.

Want to learn more? Join her and an expert panel at 5 p.m. today for a free Q&A. RSVP here.
"Just as all politics is local, all public health is ultimately local."

—Jeffrey Levi, a professor at George Washington University, on why there's no one ideal type of health department for communities
» THE FINAL STRETCH: Join us today at 5 p.m. ET via Zoom for a free Q&A on the court challenges to Pa.'s electoral maps and how they could affect your community. Register for the event here. Have questions for our panelists? Send them to events@spotlightpa.org.
» Pennsylvania will mirror updated CDC guidance on indoor masking, which is no longer urged in places where hospitals are under less strain.

» Philly has dropped its indoor mask mandateMasks will still be required in schools, health-care institutions, government buildings, on public transit, and in businesses that require them.

» Critics say the CDC's new mask policy treats immunocompromised people as obstacles on the road to "normal," via The Atlantic.

» More than one in four registered nurse positions are vacant in Pennsylvania as the pandemic makes a staff shortage worse, per WITF.

» Pennsylvania is ready to move to the endemic phase of COVID-19, meaning a response focused on outbreaks and long-term prevention.

» Keep up with our coronavirus tracker, or find where to get a vaccine.
» Spotlight PA launching first-ever regional bureau based in State College

» Pa. election 2022: Tell Spotlight PA what coverage matters to you

» Pennsylvania’s 2022 race for governor: What we know so far

» Pennsylvania’s 2022 U.S. Senate race: What we know so far

Police oversight panel acknowledges gaps in its reports

In its first meeting of the year, the oversight panel tasked with making policy recommendations to state-run police agencies addressed questions about gaps in its reports raised by Spotlight PA and other observers.

Elizabeth Pittinger, vice chair of the Pennsylvania State Law Enforcement Citizen Advisory Commission, said that while it’s not the panel’s job to find fault with Pennsylvania State Police actions, part of its mission is to restore confidence and trust in law enforcement.

“We understand the recent criticism related to the information disclosed in our quarterly reports,” she said near the start of Monday’s meeting, before an hours-long discussion on a slew of new potential recommendations to the Pennsylvania State Police and other state agencies.

The comment referred to omissions in its first three reports, which did not include a narrative of the incidents being reviewed. One report recommended that State Police outsource investigations in which its officers injure or kill people to avoid conflicts of interest.

The report made no mention of a 2016 incident in which State Police shot a man in Beaver County after consulting with the local district attorney about whether the action would be legal. That same district attorney later ruled that the trooper’s actions were justified based on a State Police investigation.

The details shape the commission’s recommendations, and without them, critics say, there is no context.

David Harris, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law who studies police accountability, told Spotlight PA the omissions prevent the public from fully understanding what troopers did to bring about the guidance.

“This is not just odd. It’s not just a stylistic choice. … The context is completely stripped away, so a person reading this would have no idea why the recommendations were made, whether they were right or wrong, urgent or not,” he said. “The citizen reading this has no idea where it came from and how to evaluate PSP’s response.”

Pittinger told the other commission members that scant description of incidents risks further alienation by the community, which is the antithesis of the commission’s purpose. 

“Again, we recognize the public's interest in the facts underlying the commission's findings and recommendations and appreciate the diligence of reporters seeking to illuminate the frustration of the public's expectations of the commission,” she said. “It is a dilemma that the commission will undoubtedly discuss over the coming months.”

The commission was created by Gov. Tom Wolf after the murder of George Floyd. Recent reports called for changes in how the Pennsylvania State Police investigate such incidents, how troopers treat juveniles, and how the agency investigates complaints made by citizens.

The State Police accepted most of the recommendations, but in his response accompanying the “critical incident” report, State Police Commissioner Robert Evanchick claimed a legislative change would be needed to allow for external investigations when troopers kill or seriously injure someone.

The commission adopted several resolutions on Feb. 28 and will send them to the agencies involved for review. 

Gary Harki, Spotlight PA

WRONGLY BANNED: The U.S. Department of Justice is suing Pennsylvania's court system for allegedly violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by discriminating against people with opioid use disorder. The legal action follows a warning that courts in eight Pennsylvania counties had wrongly barred or limited access to legal, lifesaving addiction treatments, like buprenorphine, methadone, and naltrexone.

STILL STANDING: Pennsylvania's Supreme Court has overturned a lower court decision that would have pulled the plug on Pennsylvania's two-year-old expanded mail-voting law effective March 15. With an election months away and the high court still set to hear arguments for and against the embattled law, the AP says justices voided the Commonwealth Court decision to give themselves more time to reach a ruling.

PENSION PULL: Pennsylvania's Public School Employees' Retirement System will meet today to discuss what to do with some $300 million it has directly invested in Russian and Belarus holdings as public pensions nationwide reevaluate their portfolios amid the invasion of Ukraine. PennLive reports the State Employees' Retirement System sold $9.6 million in Russian bonds last year. Related discussions continue. 

COURT CHECKS: Upset over the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's choice of the new congressional map, Republicans are again eyeing new limits on the court's redistricting power, with similarly stymied GOP lawmakers in other states doing the same. In legislative reapportionment news: Republican lawmakers who want the old state House and state Senate lines to guide the May primary have been dealt another setback.

BURN BOOK: Jake Corman's "MAGA makeover" continued in Pittsburgh's South Hills on Monday with former top Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway at his side to take aim at Corman's GOP rivals in the governor's race. A Corman campaign adviser, Conway called Doug Mastriano a "show horse" and added of Lou Barletta: "He's a great guy … but he lost (to Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Casey) in 2018 by 13 points."

» INQUIRER: Legalizing weed in Pa. faces complicated demands

» PENNLIVE: DePasquale won't oppose U.S. Rep. Scott Perry

» PUBLICSOURCE: Rent relief will end within months in Allegheny County

» TRIBLIVE: Pittsburgh steelworker gets front-row seat to SOTU

» WITF: The local impacts of legislative redistricting

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.

WORD PLAY (Case No. 136)What runs but never walks, has a mouth but never talks, has a head that never weeps, and has a bed but never sleeps?

Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.

Last week's answer: A murder of crows (Find last week's clue here.)

Congrats to Marcia R. who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: Lindsey S., Jon N., Michael H., Claudia M., David T., Sylvia N., Michele M., Dan W., Steve N., Lois P., Ned B., Sharon W., Beth T., Irene T., Donna D., Fred O., Marcia R., George S., William D., Joyce R., Pat S., Dennis P., Roseanne D., Mary B., Lou R., and Johnny C.
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