Recent editorials of statewide and national interest from Pennsylvania’s newspapers:

Trump should cooperate

Altoona Mirror

Nov. 18

American presidents need to hit the ground running, especially when it comes to national security. We have too many enemies in the world to let our guard down for even a few hours.

President Donald Trump continues to challenge results of the Nov. 3 election through court challenges. That is both his right and entirely understandable.

It does not appear that the president’s attorneys will be able to prevail to the extent needed to mount a successful challenge to the election. Unless something entirely unforeseen by anyone occurs, Joe Biden will become president on Jan. 20.

Trump has ordered federal agencies not to cooperate with Biden’s transition team. That will make things inconvenient for the Biden administration. It will slow action on some of his initiatives — and because Biden has vowed to reverse many of Trump’s executive orders, an attempt to slow him down is understandable.

One action by the White House could prove dangerous, however. It is refusal to provide intelligence briefings to Biden.

Because of the complexity of national security and, again, the need for new presidents to be up to speed immediately, most presidents in the past have authorized such briefings for those about to take over the country’s highest post.

Trump should do that, too. National security is not a matter of partisanship — in any way. Biden should be briefed on it so that, when he takes office, there will be no lag in Oval Office readiness.



This might be the worst time to lose paid sick leave, but many could if Council doesn’t act

The Philadelphia Inquirer

Nov. 16

In less than two months, many Philadelphians will lose their ability to get paid sick leave — despite a resurging pandemic. City Council can fix that, but the window is closing.

The coronavirus laid bare the inequities that low-wage workers face, from healthcare access to eviction dangers to job security. Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) in March to mandate paid coronavirus-related sick leave to many, funded via payroll tax credits to employers. But it failed to cover 3 million Pennsylvania workers — notably gig workers like Uber and Lyft drivers, and delivery workers for services like Grubhub and Caviar. If those individuals needed to quarantine during the pandemic, they were out of luck. To continue earning income, they had to work sick — and in doing so, possibly infect members of the public with whom they interacted.

Councilmember Kendra Brooks, along with cosponsors Helen Gym and Bobby Henon, stepped up with a bill that mandates employers to grant up to 14 days’ paid coronavirus-related sick leave to many workers whom the FFCRA left hanging. That law passed in September. That’s the good news.

But as COVID cases reach record heights, bad news is just around the corner.

When Brooks introduced her bill in May, the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce lobbied hard against it, and succeeded in watering down the bill that ultimately passed. The final version wiped out many of the original’s protections, including those for certain workers with high-risk family members, or workers who know that they have been exposed to COVID-19 and are showing symptoms, but haven’t yet been diagnosed. It also scheduled the law to sunset at the end of this year.

When the bill passed on Sept. 10, Pennsylvania had a seven-day average of 729 COVID cases per day. Averages last week reached over 5000. With less than two months left before the bill expires, and the pandemic’s second wave in full force, now is the time for City Council to both renew and strengthen this essential legislation.

What’s more, the city made scant efforts to publicize the new law, so many workers don’t even know that this protection applies to them. That’s a recipe for lax enforcement and undercompliance. The city’s Department of Labor needs a communications campaign that gets the word out to workers.

For the city’s law to work as intended, Congress also must renew the FFCRA, whose leave provisions also expire December 31, to ensure that employees at small and midsized businesses aren’t left without adequate coverage. But City Council doesn’t have to wait for Congress. Any renewal of the city’s law would send a strong message about valuing workers.

Businesses have been hit hard by the pandemic, and this could be an extra squeeze. But the pandemic also laid bare the fact that too many low-wage workers have borne the brunt of the crisis. Besides, businesses won’t survive without a healthy workforce, and sick leave protects not just workers, but the customers with whom they interact. With COVID cases ballooning to record levels and inaction from Congress, now is not the time to take away this essential protection.



Testing must be comprehensive

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Nov. 17

Over the next several weeks, about 3.8 million rapid COVID-19 tests will be distributed to nursing homes and long-term care facilities in the state. It’s a good step in slowing the spread of the coronavirus among the highest at-risk population, but it has to be part of a more-comprehensive testing strategy.

The benefit of the credit-card-sized antigen tests, which are being provided at no cost by the federal government, is that they can provide results in about 15 minutes. State health officials say that will allow nursing homes to quickly identify positive cases and have those individuals quarantined to prevent the virus from spreading throughout the facility.

But there is a big down side to the rapid tests — the accuracy is questionable. The state health department in Nevada last month ordered nursing homes to stop using the rapid tests after it discovered the rate of false positives was 60%. The rapid tests cannot be the only testing standard because of this lack of accuracy.

For that reason, any facilities that may be relying or considering relying on the rapid tests as the sole determinant for positive cases should rethink that strategy. The facilities should utilize a broader testing program that combines frequent use of the rapid tests with the gold standard of testing, the highly accurate polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests.

Professional and college athletic teams have used such a combination of testing to identify those who test positive and then quickly move to isolate them. The rapid test, if positive, was typically followed up with a PCR test, the results of which can take a few days.

The Big Ten and Pac-12 football conferences, for instance, originally planned to cancel their seasons. When rapid tests became available in large quantities — and at a low cost of about $5 — the conferences instituted a policy of daily rapid tests on players, coaches and staff, but they also conduct PCR tests on everyone once a week.

A robust testing system is desperately needed in the state’s nursing homes and long-term-care facilities whose residents have proved to be most vulnerable. The Pennsylvania Department of Health reported more than 26,000 positive cases in nursing homes and 5,810 deaths as of the end of October.

Rapid testing, combined with PRC tests, offers protection for those in nursing care, but the testing must be part of an overall program that also includes contact tracing, wearing masks and social distancing.



Bridge (toll) too far? Not if it works

The Scranton Times-Tribune

Nov. 17

The state Department of Transportation plans to accelerate major rehabilitation or reconstruction of five to 10 major bridges across the state by establishing tolls for their use.

Since Pennsylvania drivers already pay some of the nation’s highest highway taxes every time they buy fuel, most will not take kindly to new bridge tolls. Pennsylvania’s combined state and federal gasoline tax is 58.7 cents per gallon, second nationally only to California’s 62.47 cents, according to the Tax Foundation. That is substantially higher than those in surrounding states: New York, 43.12 cents; New Jersey, 41.4 cents; Delaware, 23 cents; Maryland, 36.3 cents; West Virginia, 35.3 cents; and Ohio, 38.5 cents.

The major difference is partially due to how the states organize their highway construction and maintenance. PennDOT is responsible for more than 40,000 miles of highways and 25,000 bridges, whereas most states share responsibilities to a greater degree with county and local governments.

Despite the high fuel tax rate, revenue was declining even before the COVID-19 pandemic vastly diminished travel and fuel purchases. Most vehicles are more fuel efficient than ever, and hybrids and fully electric vehicles are on the rise.

PennDOT has not yet identified likely bridges to be subject to tolls, the state Public-Private Partnership Board has authorized the tolls. Although the tolls will be added costs, they will provide some benefits. PennDOT will ensure faster projects to diminish local traffic and economic disruption and it will execute multiple major projects at once. And tolls will be collected from interstate travelers rather than Pennsylvania residents alone, spreading the burden beyond the state’s borders.

Meanwhile, now that PennDOT has entered the toll business, it raises the question anew of why the state needs two separate highway departments. The state Turnpike Commission oversees 550 miles of tolled highway, independently of PennDOT. But the Legislature has required it to contribute about $450 million a year to other transportation endeavors, originally for PennDOT projects but now mostly for mass transit. The Legislature should determine the amount of operational savings that could be derived from merging the two highway agencies.



Election workers deserve respect, not abuse

Reading Eagle

Nov. 14

This has been a difficult election year for just about everyone, but no one has had it tougher than the people responsible for administering elections and counting votes.

The combination of a pandemic, brand new voting rules and an intensely heated campaign put tremendous pressure on county governments throughout Pennsylvania. In our region, the election boards and especially the people working for them have done an excellent job under these trying circumstances.

Let us stipulate that it is reasonable to take issue with some of the decisions made in Harrisburg that led to confusion before and even after the votes started to be counted and slowed down the process.

But it is unconscionable for anyone unhappy with the process to take out their frustrations on the people who have been working extraordinarily hard to get the votes counted. Election workers have received death threats amid the ongoing controversy over Pennsylvania’s vote count. Abusive messages are being delivered to workers in our region as well. It’s infuriating and inexcusable.

Consider the challenge that was presented. In a state that had never allowed widespread mail-in voting until this year, each county had to develop a system for collecting and storing huge numbers of those votes, and then figure out a way to count them efficiently and fairly.

In Berks County, election officials rented the ballroom in Reading’s DoubleTree by Hilton hotel and turned it into the headquarters for opening and counting tens of thousands of mailed ballots.

More than 200 county employees worked around the clock using an efficient system to accomplish the task of sorting, opening and tabulating the ballots. It was a great success.

“Without a doubt the county employees that came in on Election Day and did what they did — opening roughly 61,000 ballots — were absolutely phenomenal,” said Ronald Seaman, chief county administrator. “I’m so proud of everything they’ve done.”

Chester County rented out West Chester University’s Ehinger Gymnasium as its center for processing about 150,000 mailed votes plus thousands more provisional ballots.

County Chief Administrator Bobby Kagel said the election workers there have been diligent in not allowing surrounding political turmoil to distract them from their tasks.

“Our election staff has been incredible throughout this process,” he said. “They all understand the scrutiny we are all under, and even though it may be wearing on them, at the end of the day they faithfully and truly execute their responsibilities.

“As a group, I have never seen people work so hard and tirelessly as everyone from Voter Services.”

The count also went smoothly in Montgomery County.

“I think the county has done a superb job handling this election. We should all be very grateful to the county staff who has been working tirelessly on this,” said county Commissioner Kenneth E. Lawrence Jr., who is chairman of the county Board of Elections. “We essentially have been running an election for a month now since ballots went out, with our drop off locations, with our satellite offices and we nearly tripled the size of our Voter Services staff. I think the people of Montgomery County should be very proud of the way this election was run.”

The challenge was immense, with about 280,000 requests for mail-in ballots and more than 243,000 completed ballots received. Most of them had been counted within a day of the election.

So much of the focus has been on mail-in votes, but administering the traditional polls was a tremendous challenge as well. We salute the many people who agreed to put aside pandemic concerns and work a long day at voting precincts.

Of course we’re not saying everything was perfect on Election Day. There were long lines at many polling places. Some people had to wait hours to vote. In Reading there were issues with not having enough interpreters at a precinct with a large Spanish-speaking population. And we share many Americans’ frustration with the slow pace of counting in some parts of our state.

But the people who worked on the election in our region deserve credit, not abuse, for their hard work in getting us through this historic election. Show them respect and don’t leave them caught in the middle of this battle over ballots.