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Will pandemic alter Pa.'s public health landscape?

Plus, opponents take Pa. congressional map fight to SCOTUS.


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Your Postmaster: Colin Deppen
March 1, 2022
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Roughly half of the state's nearly 13 million residents live in a county or city covered by a local health department. The rest rely solely on the state for a limited number of public health resources and services.

And while that arrangement presented challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, plans to add health departments in some counties were ultimately scrapped or scaled back due to money, politics, and other factors. 

In a look at the role of local-level health departments in Pennsylvania's "mixed" public health setup, Spotlight PA examines their impact during the pandemic and the traditional hurdles to creating more.

THE CONTEXT: Pennsylvania's public health system has been the focus of plenty of discussion but little change, even as the pandemic created new challenges and pain points for local leaders and messengers.

Facing such challenges — and frustrated by the state Department of Health's handling of the emergency — commissioners in seven southwestern counties planned a new regional health department.

But the potential price tag led to a volunteer health advisory council being created instead. "We just can't afford that," Greene County Commissioner Mike Belding said of the original, more ambitious proposal.

Spotlight PA found anecdotal evidence that places with local health departments had some advantages in the pandemic. It also found evidence to suggest they have a positive impact on resident health overall.


"This is not something the general public is screaming at us about, I think. These protesters are really trying to gin up something that is not true."

—House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R., Centre) after gift ban protesters interrupted his Pa. Press Club address on Monday
» MASKING GUIDANCE: Pennsylvania will mirror the CDC's updated guidance on indoor masking, which is no longer urged for the 70% of Americans who live where the risk of overwhelmed hospitals is lower.

» REMAINING RULES: Masks are still required on public transportation and inside airports, train stations, and bus stations under the CDC's updated guidelines. Cities and businesses can still require masking on their own

» ROAD TO 'NORMAL': Critics of the CDC's updated indoor mask guidance say, among other points, that it endangers the immunocompromised and treats them as obstacles on the road to "normal," via The Atlantic.

» UNCLAIMED TESTS: Nearly half of the 500 million at-home COVID-19 tests the Biden administration has made available for mail order are still unclaimed as case numbers drop along with demand for testing, the AP reports.

» STAFF SHORTAGE: More than one in four registered nurse positions are now vacant in Pennsylvania as a shortage of medical professionals that predates the pandemic continues to get worse during it, WITF reports. 

To find a COVID-19 vaccine, use the federal government's online tool, call 1-800-232-0233, or text your zip code to 438829 (GETVAX).
» THE FINAL STRETCH: Join us Thursday, March 3 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.
Harrisburg's Walnut Street Bridge is glowing in a pic by @yatsko. Send us your gems, use #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us @spotlightpennsylvania.
EMERGENCY PLAN: Republicans unhappy with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's choice of congressional map are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to override the selection and force a 17-person, at-large congressional contest instead, Capital-Star reports. The plaintiffs, including voters and candidates, are appealing to the high court after a federal judge in Harrisburg denied their bid for emergency relief.

PSERS POWER: Questions about who really governs the Pennsylvania Public School Employees' Retirement System, or PSERS, continue along with law enforcement investigations into the massive, $74 billion fund. The Inquirer reports an internal report has piqued scrutiny of the chain of command, with executives appearing to give "short shrift" to the board and skipping key checks and balances in the process.

TAX BURDENS: Pennsylvanians avoided paying $222 million in new school taxes between 2012 and 2021 because of added limits on the ability of schools to raise such levies, a fiscal watchdog found. GOP lawmakers call the outcome proof of effective legislation, while Democrats are playing down the connection. Meanwhile, third-party experts told CNHI that impact is in the eye of the beholder this time.

BOWING OUT: Former state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale is no longer in the running for the York County congressional seat occupied by scrutinized Republican Scott Perry. DePasquale says the district's newly reapportioned boundary led him to abandon the bid. PennLive says the new 10th District lines were about as favorable as Democrats could've hoped for, calling DePasquale's exit a major blow for the party.

SENTENCE UPHELD: Pennsylvania's Supreme Court has upheld a 50-year prison sentence for Michael Felder, who was 17 when he killed another youth during a pickup basketball game and whose case was closely watched amid reevaluations of harsh prison sentences for young offenders. The justices followed a seismic U.S. Supreme Court decision from April in upholding Felder's sentence as constitutional. 

RUSSIA BLOCK: Pennsylvania's Treasury has divested all holdings in Russian companies in protest of the Ukraine invasion. Treasurer Stacy Garrity says that while the holdings were minimal, the step was "necessary to protect Pennsylvania taxpayers" and show support. Public pensions may be next.

LUNCH MONEY: A pandemic-era program that paused lunch debt collections in schools nationwide is set to expire this July. Bucks County community groups are trying to cancel school lunch debt forever.

BIG SPEECH: President Joe Biden will deliver his first State of the Union address at 9 tonight against the backdrop of a staggering crisis in Europe. Coverage starts here at 8 p.m. The focus of the speech has adapted.

BAD NEWS: Cuts that started soon after the Alden Global Capital hedge fund bought the Pottstown Mercury newspaper in 2020 were front and center in Sunday's 60 Minutes piece on "the demise of local news."

FASTNACHT DAY: It's Fastnacht Day, and the deep-fried Pennsylvania Dutch donut of the same name (a Lenten tradition) is on the menu. In 2006, someone suggested a low-fat version. It did not go over well.

Unscramble and send your answer to scrambler@spotlightpa.org. We'll shout out winners here, and one each week will get some Spotlight PA swag.

*This week's theme: Movies that were set or filmed in Pennsylvania

Yesterday's answer: Mannequin (was filmed in Philadelphia and Camp Hill)

Congrats to our daily winners: Craig W., Bill C., Barbara F., Mike B., Greg F., Kevin H., Joel S., Janet C., Keith F., Bonnie R., Michelle T., John A., Jill M., Elaine C., Patricia M., Joan S., Carol Y., Marty M., Doris T., Judith D., Kimberly B., Elizabeth W., Ted W., Julie C., Vicki U., Steve D., Susan N.-Z., Maureen G., Don H., Kimberly S., Dave B., Hoss E., Susan R., Kim C., Ronnee G., George S., Lex M., James B., Pat B., Bruce T., Catherine J., Tracy K., Mary L., Scott R., Dianne K., Fred O., Bruce B., Al M., George S., Marisa B., Eddy Z., David W., Sherri A., Bill S., Daniel M., Becky C., Bill L., Wendy A., Suzanne S., Jean W., Johnny C., Jude M., Dan W., Karen W., Patricia R., Karen M., Sandra S., Ann E., Jill A.-S., Alissa H., John H., John P., and Richard S.
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