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

With data switch, Trump delivers another slap to CDC

The York Dispatch

July 17

Forgive us if we take it with an entire shaker of salt when the Trump administration says it’s making a change to improve a government agency’s efficiency.

And up that to a pound of salt when it’s an agency that has fallen out of favor with our mercurial president.

As of Thursday morning, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is no longer tracking data from U.S. hospitals on such matters as bed occupancy, staffing levels, the status of COVID-19 patients, available ventilators, supplies of personal protective equipment and more.

Instead, hospitals have been instructed to report that data to Health and Human Services through TeleTracking, a private company based in Pittsburgh, or through their state health departments if they receive a written waiver.

Huh. So in the midst of a pandemic that has killed nearly 138,000 Americans and is surging through some states, when hospitals are running out of space in intensive care units and medical workers are rationing their masks and gowns, the agency that has always kept tabs on those numbers ... isn’t going to be doing that any more.

The administration says the idea is to “streamline reporting,” CDC head Dr. Robert Redfield said during a call with reporters, according to The Associated Press. According to HHS, only 85% of hospitals were sending in the data, and it was taking a week or more. A CDC official, speaking anonymously, said that only 60% of hospitals were participating, but the data was being reported out within two days.

The change will mean faster and more complete reporting, HHS said. Although, since there are no incentives or mandates to go along with the change, it’s hard to see why that would change.

Well, no official incentives, anyway. The American Hospital Association told its members on Monday that shipments of the COVID-19 treatment remdesivir will be based solely on the data from the TeleTracking system, according to NPR.

And that’s the kind of thing that gives us pause. TeleTracking was awarded a $10.2 million contract in April to gather this data, which was already being gathered by the CDC. The company has had 29 government contracts since 2004, mostly for computer systems and programming for Veterans Affairs hospitals. None of the contracts was for more than $300,000.

The CDC, on the other hand, has been collecting this sort of data for decades and has developed relationships with hospitals and with the agencies, vendors and others who need this data.

One complaint is that the CDC’s equipment is old and slow. Whose fault is that? The agency tasked with tracking public health for the country should have the equipment it needs to do its job.

And now there are others, from agencies to vendors, who do not have access to the daily data because it is no longer in the CDC’s hands. The CDC’s Current Hospital Capacity Estimates website says it was updated on Tuesday and will not be updated again.

Gregory Koblentz, a biodefense expert at George Mason University, said the change appears to be consistent with administration moves in recent months that have sidelined the CDC from the role it has played in other epidemics as the public’s primary source of information.

“We know the administration has been trying to silence the CDC,” he said. “Now it looks like the administration might be trying to blind the CDC as well.”

This seems like a strategy firmly in the Trump mode, both taking data away from an agency that is out of his favor and privatizing work that has always been done by a government agency.

Even if the change does serve the stated purpose of streamlining the information collection, it gives the impression that Trump is trying to withhold crucial information in the midst of a pandemic and the administration is yet again putting its own agenda ahead of the needs of the country.



Be honest about what is unknown

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

July 19

The frustration of monthslong restrictions brought on by the coronavirus pandemic has many people desperate for encouraging news, but that information must be based on facts and scientific data.

When a top official from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center announced recently that the strain of the virus causing a rise in cases locally was a less-severe version, there was reason for optimism. Perhaps the virus was less deadly than previous strains and could be treated and controlled better.

Unfortunately, a deeper dive into the research behind that assertion shows there is little scientific evidence to support the claim — and that is troubling. If people believe there is a lower risk associated with the coronavirus, that can lead to relaxed safety measures to control the spread and the possibility of increased infections.

Dr. Graham Snyder, director of infection prevention, said on July 9 that reports of a strain “that seems to transmit easier but is less deadly” was what UPMC was detecting here, and that “our data supports those characteristics.”

When Spotlight PA, an independent newsroom based in Harrisburg, reviewed the studies cited by UPMC, it found the assertion was not supported by current research. Experts in epidemiology and virology interviewed by Spotlight also found a lack of evidence to show the strain was any less severe.

In fact, one of the studies referenced by a UPMC spokesperson actually contradicted the notion of a less-severe strain. Researchers looking at the new strain of the virus wrote that they “did not find evidence” of impact on disease severity and there was likewise no evidence it was any less severe.

A second scientific paper provided by UPMC to Spotlight stated that further studies would be needed to determine the severity of the strain.

Given the unknown and seemingly ever-changing nature of the coronavirus, it’s not surprising that medical experts might disagree on aspects of the disease. UPMC officials have challenged state and local directives regarding the disease previously, most notably on its decision to resume elective surgeries despite a statewide ban.

UPMC officials were right to point out that hospitalizations are not climbing dramatically in Allegheny County and that the mortality rate remains low. That is good news. At the same time, however, the number of positive cases of COVID-19 is spiking in the county and across the country, and that is reason for concern.

Local health officials attribute the rise to the relaxed restrictions in early June that led many — mostly young people — to frequent bars and restaurants without wearing masks or maintaining social distancing. The reason hospitalizations aren’t rising as dramatically could be because younger people are not showing serious symptoms, or because there are delays in testing and confirming the disease, or because they are young and have more strength in resisting the disease.

But that doesn’t mean the strain is any less severe or wouldn’t be just as threatening to elderly residents or people with compromised health systems.

UPMC needs to take a deeper look and share those findings, no matter how it complicates what it thought it knew. This is a pandemic; no science will ever be perfect or ahead of the disease. But we have to be honest about what we don’t know and when we are wrong.



Trump’s federal agents are not welcome in Philly

Philadelphia Inquirer

July 21

In Portland, Ore., where protesters have been active for nearly two months, masked armed federal agents without any identification have been abducting protesters into unmarked vehicles, as well as using tear gas, rubber bullets, and flash-bangs. They were from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, at the behest of President Donald Trump, who applauded their use of force. Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown called on the federal agents to leave.

On Monday, Trump threatened to send federal forces to New York, Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore, Oakland, Calif., and Philadelphia. Trump expanded his reasoning from dealing with civil unrest to gun violence. The White House plans to send 175 agents to Chicago to “help” with violent crime, despite Mayor Lori Lightfoot pleading for no such measure.

All the cities that Trump mentioned at the Oval Office have two things in common: They are led by Democratic mayors, and they have large Black populations. With less than four months to the general election, Trump is doubling down on the politics of fear and racism. His reelection message, which he has been tweeting ad nauseam, is that a Democratic win in November would mean chaos and crime. To make his case, Trump is using every tool he has — including militarized forces of the Department of Homeland Security — to inflame tensions with disregard to lives.

Trump’s agents are not welcome in Philadelphia. This city and residents are not pawns for Trump to play his divisive brand of politics with.

That was also the message from Philadelphia’s elected officials. Mayor Jim Kenney responded to Trump’s threat of sending federal agents to Philadelphia by calling it “ironic and offensive,” and an “abuse of power” that the city would “use all means to resist.”

The mayor has a point — and he should use all means to resist Trump’s effort to incite violence. But the images and outrage over what happened in Portland also stand as a mirror for Philadelphia’s own actions.

Philadelphia doesn’t need clandestine federal law enforcement to teargas, shoot rubber bullets, and conduct mass arrests of protesters — not when the Philadelphia Police Department is here, doing the same.

Kenney and his administration still owe many answers to the residents of Philadelphia. Who made key decisions during the first days of protest is still unclear — as is Kenney’s or Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw’s personal involvement. On Monday, Kenney announced that he hired two firms to conduct an audit of the city’s response to protests that should be completed by the end of the year. According to the Mayor’s Office, the budget of the audit is approximately $268,000.

With his poll numbers trailing, the months ahead of the election are going to bring the worst out of Trump. That will require the state and the city to resist — and they proved in the past that they are up for the task. But it also requires that our local leaders be more transparent than ever. With the amount of harm that Trump could potentially inflict — on citizens as well as to our values — there is no room for more harm from our city’s leaders and law enforcement.



Pa. Republicans at their worst: Let’s gerrymander judge elections

Easton Express Times

July 19

Not only did Republican lawmakers in Harrisburg kill any hope of passing redistricting reform in time for the 2020 census update, they are now supporting an effort to gerrymander the election of state judges, too.

Gerrymandering, like poison ivy encasing the trunk of a tree, prevents voters from tapping the heartwood of American democracy: Fair elections.

GOP leaders in the Legislature have set their sights on state judicial elections, hoping that fielding candidates from designated regions in the state (nudge, wink — from very red and very blue districts, purposefully) will produce more Republican judges.

For decades, statewide judgeships — state Supreme, Superior and Commonwealth courts — have been filled by statewide election. As the Pennsylvania Constitution provides.

Of late, however, Democrats won a majority of seats on the state Supreme Court, and that has scrunched up Republican knickers in the seats of legislative power.

If GOP-led gerrymandering can produce intractable Republican majorities in the House and Senate, the thinking goes, why not try the same approach with the three state appellate courts?

Last week the state Senate started the process of amending the state Constitution to do just that. The House adopted the same amendment last year along party lines. A few Republicans jumped the fence, joining Democrats in voting no.

Thankfully, the process of amending the Constitution requires a second round of legislative approvals before it goes to the voters in a referendum. But that could well happen, if legislative Republicans retain majority control. The governor cannot veto a proposed constitutional amendment.

There are plenty of good reasons not to slice and dice Pennsylvania into judicial districts. The first is, look at the near-total entrenchment of incumbents and the iron-fisted leadership by Republicans in the Legislature, thanks to gerrymandering.

Look at what that got us. (Among other things, a free-for-all fireworks law that terrorizes people and pets at this time of year. But we digress.)

And who, you might ask, would draw the lines for new judicial districts? Why, the same control-geeks who gave us the current lopsided legislative model.

Of course, the judiciary isn’t free of politics. That will always be the case, whether judges are elected or appointed through a “merit” process.

But judges, thankfully, can act and rule relatively free of partisan pressure. Once elected, they face only 10-year retention votes. That makes for an offering of independence and the ability to act as a check on the other branches of government.

Statewide judicial elections are working as intended. If nothing else, they level the playing field along voters’ wishes and enable elected judges to counter some of the worst power grabs by insulated partisan legislators.

The 2018 state Supreme Court redrawing of one of the nation’s most gerrymandered congressional maps was a classic example.

This proposal, under the guise of spreading out judges geographically, has nothing to do with diversity on the bench or fairness. It’s revenge served cold, Harrisburg-style.



PPP loans bring hope, questions

Erie Times News

July 19

It was clear at the outset that healing the COVID-19 pandemic would take more than medicine. It would also require the injection of prodigious sums of cash to shore up an economy that slammed to a halt in the name of safety.

That is what the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program promised. And now we have some understanding of what it delivered.

As detailed by reporter Jim Martin and others, businesses and nonprofits in Erie and Crawford counties won between $258 million and $622 million in loans of more than $150,000. Money flowed to factories, doctors’ offices and law firms, salons, car dealers, trucking companies and more. And the list of large loans does not include the hundreds of local businesses and nonprofits that received payments of less than $150,000, which records do not identify by name.

Nationwide, the Small Business Administration estimates that more than a half-trillion dollars in PPP loans went to 5 million small businesses. Nearly 87 percent of the loans were for less than $150,000.

The program worked for businesses like Panache Salon & Spa. The Millcreek company obtained a loan of between $150,000 and $300,000 and used it to make rent, utility, health care and payroll payments. It expects to recoup about 35 percent of its losses and retain 32 employees.

The loan of between $5 million and $10 million secured by Allegheny College – Crawford County’s seventh-largest employer – helped it avoid layoffs and furloughs. The Achievement Center maintained vital services to families thanks to a $2.1 million loan.

Like any massive program hastily deployed, things were bound to get messy.

Questions of conflict of interest and fairness hang over the loans. Money flowed to large companies that did not seem to meet the definition of small business.

One survey found 26% of minority business owners received part or all of the loans they sought. That is compared with 47% of PPP loan applications as a whole. It is part of what a business leader called a triple whammy. Minorities were hit harder by business closures and suffered a lower rate of loan approvals and higher rate of disease.

Allies of the president and Congress members benefited. Erie’s U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly’s family car dealerships in Butler obtained three loans totaling between $450,000 and a little over $1 million. His office said the money helped protect 200 jobs.

To obtain loan forgiveness, businesses must document that they spent the money according to the rules. Make those records public to guard against abuse and preserve public trust.

Clearly, more money will be needed to protect small businesses as virus cases mount and restrictions return. Monitor closely and communicate the PPP program payoff and, next time, make it better: more transparent and targeted to those most in need.