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

State funds long overdue health study

The Citizens’ Voice

Dec. 29

Across the 15 years in which the gas industry has made Pennsylvania the nation’s second-largest producer, the state Legislature has taken extraordinary steps to give the industry its way. At different times, lawmakers have reduced the state’s regulatory capability, overriden local zoning, granted eminent domain for pipelines, subsidized markets for gas with massive tax breaks, refused to establish a fair tax structure, and so on.

Remarkably, that service to the industry even has included prohibitions against studying the industry’s impact on public health, despite pleas from the health care community and people in drilling-affected regions to assess that impact.

Now the Wolf administration has taken a long-overdue step to begin assessing some aspects of the industry’s public health impact. It announced last week a $2.5 million grant to the University of Pittsburgh for two epidemiological studies in the heavily drilled Southwest area of the state.

One will assess whether there might be a connection between drilling activity and childhood cancers. The other will examine asthma incidence in the same region.

All industrial activity has some impact on public health, and there is no reason not to study and quantify it as a step toward mitigating the damage.

Dec. 6, the journal Environmental Research published a study by the Colorado School of Public Health, which concluded that people who live near oil and gas operations are 6% more likely to have early indicators of cardiovascular disease than those who don’t.

Researchers eliminated from the study people who smoke and those who are exposed to smoke, dust and chemicals in their workplaces.

The area covered by the study is much like Southwest Pennsylvania, in that it includes thousands of old and new wells, heavy industry-generated truck traffic and related factors.

The new Pennsylvania studies should lead to a comprehensive public health assessment throughout the state’s sprawling gas field.



Decision to end Reading’s DID program poorly timed

Reading Eagle

Dec. 28

There would never be a good moment to put important downtown Reading services in jeopardy, but City Council’s surprise 4-3 vote to shut down the Downtown Improvement District was particularly ill-timed.

Right now big plans are in the works to finally start bringing the heart of the city back to life, with Alvernia University’s ambitious CollegeTowne project at the center of it. The people making those plans did so under the assumption that the familiar red-clad DID workers would be there working to keep the neighborhood clean and safe, as they have been for the last 25 years.

With council’s decision not to reauthorize DID, it’s unclear exactly who is going to take on those critical responsibilities. The only thing that’s certain is that someone will have to do it in order for Reading to finally blossom, as it appears poised to do.

There’s no denying that DID has had its problems over the years. At times the agency has struggled to keep up with important tasks such as removing weeds and litter. And it’s understandable that some business owners object to having to pay a DID assessment when they don’t feel they’re getting much in return for their money.

The problem is that council made the decision to kill DID just days before its previous authorization was set to expire Dec. 31 and without a plan to replace it. That was irresponsible. Reauthorizing the organization and pushing for improvements within it would have been far preferable to scrambling to come up with something brand new in such a short time frame.

One of the biggest questions has to do with finances. DID’s main source of income came directly from downtown businesses, not the city general budget.

Councilwoman Johanny Cepeda-Freytiz, a downtown business owner who voted not to reauthorize DID, is calling for using existing city personnel and hiring part-time employees to replace the DID ambassadors. But Reading Finance Director Jamar Kelly told council that the city could not add positions to fill the hole left by DID. It’s prohibited under the terms of the state’s Act 47 program for fiscally distressed cities.

Even if the city were permitted to make these expenditures, it doesn’t seem like a good idea to add financial obligations to an already strapped Reading budget.

Fortunately council members are planning to reconsider the DID authorization measure. We urge them to take advantage of the opportunity to correct their error.

If DID reauthorization fails again, the best scenario would be businesses stepping up to continue funding the services it had been providing, with logistical support from City Hall. We like Cepeda-Freytiz’s call for businesses to provide volunteers to help promote neighborhood cleanliness and safety. It’s a good idea with or without DID in place.

We take some comfort in knowing that owners of businesses on both sides of the DID debate have said that they are committed to figuring out a new way to make this work if DID is not reauthorized. Mayor Eddie Moran pledged to have his administration meet in January to chart a path forward on providing essential downtown services. And the Berks County Community Foundation indicated that if DID comes to an end and a suitable replacement plan were in place, it would continue to fund popular DID programs such as the Fire + Ice Festival and the Downtown Alive concert series.

Downtown Reading has been largely quiet during the pandemic and is likely to remain that way at least through the winter months, so there’s time to get the situation with DID straightened out or come up with a viable replacement. But Reading must be ready to attract visitors when conditions improve, hopefully soon.

We know that there are hard feelings on both sides of the DID debate. But all parties involved will have to put them aside and ensure the continuation of key services downtown. It’s no exaggeration to say that Reading’s future depends on it.



Pennsylvania prisons’ unreliable COVID data hides the true extent of the crisis

The Philadelphia Inquirer

Dec. 29

Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections is apparently doing such an effective job in its coronavirus response that it’s bringing people felled by the disease back to life. On Dec. 21, DOC’s COVID-19 Dashboard showed that the number of people incarcerated who died of the coronavirus in Pennsylvania’s state prisons was 65. The next day, that number went down to 58.

But it wasn’t a Christmas miracle. It was just the latest and most egregious example of data errors and lack of transparency by the DOC on the coronavirus behind prison walls.

On the same date that seven fatalities disappeared from the data, so did nearly 25,000 tests, 11,000 of which were positive. The number of people who recovered also went down from 10,103 to 2,584.

The unexplained change in data wasn’t the first time, nor the first discrepancy.

The dashboard for Dec. 14 showed that a person incarcerated in State Correctional Institution Forest had died of the coronavirus. However, in a press release last week, DOC announced that the first death at SCI Forest was on Dec. 22.

Philadelphia’s Amistad Law Project found multiple instances in which the reported number of positive cases went down in specific prisons, without explanation.

On at least two occasions, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections reduced the number of people incarcerated who have died from coronavirus in prison without explanation.

According to a DOC spokesperson, there was a “system glitch” on the 21st that led to an erroneous report of cases and deaths. Other tests were removed because of a deliberate change — in cases when there was both a positive rapid test and lab test for the same person, for example, the dashboard reported two positives. Since the 24th, the dashboard reports individual positive cases.

The early SCI Forest death on the dashboard was an input error.

Data errors happen. But for data to be trustworthy, changes need to be transparent. The change in how tests are counted was not explained publicly. The language on the dashboard was not updated. It is also unclear if the dashboard data before and after the change is comparable — making analysis of trends unreliable.

Tracking trends is key. From mid-March to mid-October, 11 people incarcerated died of COVID in prison. In the months since, another 51 died.

The data is particularly important because it is one of few windows into the state’s prisons. Since March, visitations were canceled, though the capacity for video calls has increased. Family members have minimal ability to assess the risk to their incarcerated loved ones.

Last week, Spotlight PA reported on family members who weren’t informed by DOC on their loved one’s severe COVID-19 illness or death.

Claire Shubik-Richards of the Pennsylvania Prison Society says that the issue with the COVID-19 dashboard is just one manifestation of an inability to track basic issues, including who is incarcerated and why.

Case in point: When Gov. Tom Wolf instituted a reprieve program in April as part of the coronavirus effort, DOC estimated that 1,200 people would be eligible. The true eligible pool was much smaller, and fewer than 200 actually received reprieve.

If the Pennsylvania DOC can’t be accurate and transparent about its data, it sheds doubt on its ability to be transparent about how it’s handling COVID-19. Behind every number is a life, and far too many are being lost in prison during this pandemic.



Paying back the state

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Dec. 31

When the federal government began doling out COVID-19 relief funding, its goal was to act quickly to pump money into the pockets of individuals and businesses in need of assistance.

It’s no surprise, then, that some of that funding found its way into the wrong hands, whether by honest mistake or deliberate fraud. In Pennsylvania, state officials announced that roughly 11,000 residents who filed for benefits through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program received some of those funds in error and will be on the hook to return them.

Considering that the state handled about 2.2 million claims through the PUA system, 11,000 isn’t a terrible statistical error.

That said, those who received the aid likely needed it, and the directive to pay some of it back will likely be difficult if not impossible in the immediate future for some individuals.

How did the error occur? Understaffing and technicalities. PUA funding, established through the federal CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act, was meant for gig workers and self-employed individuals previously ineligible for unemployment benefits. If someone lost his or her job in 2019 and didn’t find work in 2020, that doesn’t count as pandemic-induced loss of income, but some of the individuals facing these circumstances applied and received aid.

Even though news of a pair of vaccines has acted as a booster shot to the national markets, full economic recovery is a long way off. The people applying for these sorts of programs have not suddenly found employment in mass numbers.

There is no foolproof way to tell whether individuals out of the 11,000 who erroneously received PUA funding were deliberately trying to defraud the system or simply misunderstood the purpose of the fund. Evidence from the state indicates significant numbers of fraudulent claims, and officials have taken steps to root out swindlers and prevent such malfeasance in the future.

But those who made a mistake should not be punished for the sins of others. Paying the state back could be devastating for some.

Compassion is key.

To its credit, the state is providing some flexibility in terms of repayment options. People will be able to either pay back a lump sum or accept a reduction in future benefits.

This is the right move, as penalizing those who made a mistake would be unnecessarily harsh at a time when everyday Pennsylvanians are struggling to make ends meet and put food on the table. For others, having some leniency in terms of a repayment schedule would likely ease the additional burden.



Good decision by Fidelity, but by state?

The Scranton Times-Tribune

Dec. 29

Fidelity Bank will provide a major boost to downtown Scranton by creating a new 45,000-square-foot headquarters and consolidating 140 jobs in the city. (It will maintain a major presence at its current Dunmore headquarters.)

President and CEO Daniel Santaniello said the project will cost between $8 million and $12 million, but that the company has not settled on whether to build anew or renovate an existing building.

“We believe that northeastern Pennsylvania is driven by the success of the city of Scranton,” Santaniello said. “It’s incumbent upon us as a corporate leader to look to relocate back into the city and bring ... life-sustaining jobs back into the city.”

That’s a fantastic vision and a good recognition of history. Scranton has declined while its suburbs have risen over the last few decades, but that is only relative to one another. The overall region’s prospects are closely intertwined with the health of its largest city.

The Fidelity project raises anew a longstanding question, though, about the role that public funding should play in the fortunes of private businesses, all the more so in this case because Fidelity is a sound financial institution rather than a struggling manufacturer or tech startup trying to find a niche.

State Sen. John Blake recently announced the award to Fidelity of a $2 million Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program grant to reduce the bank’s costs for the project.

Blake also announced another $1 million in grants to private developer Frank Dubas for the rehabilitation of three historic properties on the 500 block of Lackawanna Avenue.

Because of awards to private enterprises, critics often target the RACP program to cut state spending and contend that the state should not give certain businesses competitive advantages.

They have a point. But it also is clear that the state government must be an active agent in economic development if the state is to compete with others, and if its regional urban centers are to remain viable.

One day the state government might not need to provide RACP grants to drive economic development, or to give billion-dollar tax breaks to some of the world’s wealthiest companies to locate on this side of the Pennsylvania border. But until that day, Blake and his legislative colleagues are on the mark in marshaling state resources to help boost local economies.