- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Erie Times News. March 28, 2021.

Editorial: PA’s best shot is at beating COVID is local, not regional

It’d be great if in six weeks we could look back at this editorial and say “Wow, this opinion didn’t age well.”

That’s the outcome we’re rooting for, because it’d mean that Pennsylvania’s revamped strategy for getting its population vaccinated against COVID-19 catapulted injection rates through the ceiling, saved lives, silenced critics of the commonwealth’s initial vaccine rollout, and allowed the Keystone State to come from behind and hit President Biden’s goal that all adults will be eligible to get the vaccine by May 1.

But, for now, we don’t see the wisdom of Pennsylvania’s pivot to a new strategy just as the old one finally seemed to be sorting itself out ahead of an expected boost in vaccine supply.



The Pennsylvania Department of Health’s plan no longer includes hundreds of previously authorized vaccine providers that were eliminated in the interest of sending more doses to ones officials believe are operating more efficiently.

The move sliced the total number of PA vaccine providers from over 1,000 to roughly 300 and prompted the Pennsylvania Academy of Family Physicians, Pennsylvania Osteopathic Medical Society and the Pennsylvania Chapter of the American College of Physicians to issue a joint statement lamenting the Wolf administration’s “woeful mistake” of cutting primary care physicians out of the process.

The move, they said, demonstrated “a lack of understanding in the way most Pennsylvanians receive their health care”. Also out of the mix are some of the smaller pharmacy chains and even some hospitals that had been giving out shots.

We believe there is much to be said for residents being able to go to their trusted local pharmacies or doctor’s offices for the vaccine. That familiarity is important, particularly to elderly patients who are more likely to develop life-threatening complications due to COVID.

We also worry that the elimination of so many sites will further hinder access to the vaccine in underserved communities.

In January, our board acknowledged that the vaccine supply was inadequate but also criticized Pennsylvania’s decentralized approach to getting shots into arms that, we believe, led to procedural inconsistencies and a frustrating sign-up process that had residents scouring the internet for providers and putting themselves on upwards of a dozen waiting lists.

We still maintain the state should have valued residents’ time and effort by providing a more-centralized registration (and de-registration) process, but many of those complaints have receded now as most citizens who are eligible for the vaccine have moved beyond that sign-up phase. So we’re not sure why the state is changing its tack now, particularly if officials are right that an influx of vaccines is about to arrive.

Perhaps most-troubling is the health department’s plan to partner with the federal government to create 27 regional mass vaccination sites across Pennsylvania where the Johnson & Johnson one-dose vaccine would be administered.

We don’t object to bringing more sites online, but some county leaders, particularly in the Philadelphia suburbs, are opposed to the regional sites because they believe the move will come at the expense of local vaccination operations.

That sentiment generated an, in our view, unnecessarily harsh rebuke from health department officials who, in a series of emails, told county leaders their objections were gumming up the works.

“The Commonwealth has asked only one thing of county leaders to bring this life-saving vaccine to their residents: pick a location,” the state said. “It appears that some local leaders have chosen to bemoan even this responsibility, and are instead wasting precious time that could be used to ensure their residents benefit from the mass vaccination site’s immediate success.”

Health department spokesman Barry Ciccocioppo has also argued that the regional sites would not be diverting any vaccination doses away from the local providers, which would continue to offer the Moderna and Pfizer two-dose vaccinations.

We think that completely misses the point the counties are trying to make. They’re saying - and we agree with them - that the state should eliminate the regional sites and, instead, send all of those Johnson & Johnson doses to the counties for distribution. That would be a huge shot in the arm for the local providers, where so many residents have already signed up and are sitting on waiting lists.

Furthermore, these county-level sites do not pose the sort of transportation and logistical hurdles that come with having two regional sites for four densely populated suburban counties. We fear eligible residents, particularly senior citizens and members of underserved communities, won’t put themselves on another waiting list for a far-off site they have no way to get to.

Time could prove us wrong. But, on this Sunday, we believe the state ought to direct every available dose of vaccine through the existing infrastructure - like the county health departments - to sites that are already up and running in our local communities.

___

Philadelphia Inquirer. March 29, 2021.

Editorial: Eviction filings are at a historic low. Philly has 90 days to keep it that way. There is no reason for Philadelphia to go back to 20,000 eviction filings a year

Philadelphia has a unique opportunity to completely change the eviction landscape - but the clock is ticking.

Just three days before the CDC’s nationwide eviction moratorium expired, President Joe Biden’s White House announced that the critical protection for renters will extend through June. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first issued the temporary order to halt evictions on Sept. 4, and its most recent extension was set to expire March 31. In addition to the extension, the White House announced that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is going to take a more active role in enforcing the moratorium.

In a press conference on Monday, CDC chief Dr. Rochelle Walensky reiterated the importance of preventing evictions in a pandemic as “a key step in helping to stop the spread of COVID-19.”

The impact of evictions is obvious in a pandemic: people kicked out of their house can’t stay safe or quarantine at home. But an eviction is always a public health hazard with devastating consequences. A recent study from Princeton University’s Eviction Lab found that babies born to mothers who had an eviction filed against them while pregnant had worse outcomes compared to other mothers who experienced eviction.

In a year marked by complex and profound challenges, Philadelphia was able to positively manage evictions, with a low rate of eviction filings compared to other cities. For example: Since March 15, 2020, when the pandemic shut down courts nationwide, Philly’s landlords filed about 4,700 evictions. In comparison, according to Eviction Lab data, landlords in the similarly sized Phoenix, Arizona, filed 31,000 evictions.

There are multiple reasons for the low eviction filing rate.

Last summer, City Council passed the Emergency Housing Protection Act - a package of bills championed by Councilmembers Kendra Brooks, Jamie Gauthier, and Helen Gym - to halt evictions and create the Eviction Diversion Program, among other protections. When CARES Act rental assistance money arrived, the administration quickly created PHLRentAssist, a program that has already dispersed $65 million. Municipal Court imposed a moratorium on the execution of evictions.

With this infrastructure in place, all stakeholders involved, and new rental assistance money from the American Rescue Plan, Philadelphia is uniquely situated to make its currently low eviction rate the new norm.

There is a concrete step to achieve that reality: making the Eviction Diversion Program permanent. The program, which requires that landlords go through mediation before filing for eviction in court, is expiring at the end of the month. Since September, the program held more than 1,000 mediations; 91% were able to reach an agreement, all while avoiding the harmful eviction filing on the tenant’s record. On March 23, ten members of Council sent a letter to the leadership of Municipal Court asking them to institutionalize the program as part of the court process.

Evictions are a driver of poverty, not just a result of it. If Philadelphia is serious about cutting poverty, it needs to seize on the good work done in the past year.

___

Altoona Mirror. March 22, 2021.

Editorial: Gov. trying to influence with wording

For someone who purports to believe in free and fair elections, Gov. Tom Wolf has a funny way of showing it.

During the primary election in May, voters will be presented with three ballot questions about proposed amendments to the Pennsylvania Constitution.

Normally, questions like these are written in a fair - albeit sometimes confusing - manner that seeks only to present the issue at hand and allow the voters to decide.

But two of the questions voters will see in May are hardly fair. They include language that sounds like the governor making his arguments for why he thinks these amendments are a bad idea.

Question 1 reads: Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to change existing law and increase the power of the General Assembly to unilaterally terminate or extend a disaster emergency declaration - and the powers of commonwealth agencies to address the disaster regardless of its severity pursuant to that declaration - through passing a concurrent resolution by simple majority, thereby removing the existing check and balance of presenting a resolution to the governor for approval or disapproval?

The question’s wording is very heavily slanted to persuade voters against enacting it. We find it to be the height of hypocrisy, though, that it talks about removing a check and balance.

As Jake Corman, President Pro Tempore of the state Senate, said, there is no check or balance now because the governor is already doing whatever he wants and the legislature is powerless.

Maybe question 2 will be better.

Question 2 reads: Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to change existing law so that: a disaster emergency declaration will expire automatically after 21 days, regardless of the severity of the emergency, unless the general assembly takes action to extend the disaster emergency; the governor may not declare a new disaster emergency to respond to the dangers facing the Commonwealth unless the General Assembly passes a concurrent resolution; the General Assembly enacts new laws for disaster management?

While this one isn’t quite as blatantly slanted toward Wolf’s point of view, it is still hardly neutral language. He’s making it seem like no emergency declaration can last longer than three weeks under any circumstances and that the legislature will always withhold granting an extension.

In reality, this proposal is designed to keep a governor from declaring he or she has unchecked power for as long as the governor believes an emergency exists.

The third question actually achieves what the other two do not - fair wording.

Question 3 reads: Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended by adding a new section providing that equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged because of an individual’s race or ethnicity?

If Wolf’s position on each question is the way to go, then why does he feel the need to word the questions in such a transparently biased manner? It seems to fit a pattern of this governor not being able to properly manage anything related to amending the state’s Constitution. Wolf knows any fairly worded question would make it seem like common sense to approve these amendments.

Don’t believe us? Try these:

Question 1: Should the General Assembly be permitted by a majority vote of both houses to end a governor’s disaster declaration without requiring the governor’s approval to do so?

Question 2: Should a governor’s disaster declaration be limited to a maximum of 21 days unless the general assembly, by majority vote of both houses, grants an extension?

We think the answer to both is yes because our government’s system of checks and balances is important.

We hope a majority of Pennsylvania voters will feel the same way.

___

York Dispatch. March 25, 2021.

Editorial: New report on fracking begs state response

A newly released report is raising new concerns about the effects of hydraulic fracturing on public health and Gov. Tom Wolf should waste little time using the findings as a platform for further study and, if necessary, reform.

The two-year pilot study was conducted by Environmental Health News and what it lacked in samples size it more than made up for in specificity. Researchers spent nine weeks collecting air, water and urine samples from five families in southwestern Pennsylvania - three who live within two miles of active fracking operations and two who live more than five miles from the nearest well pad.

What they discovered was shocking.

“We found chemicals like benzene and butylcyclohexane in drinking water and air samples, and breakdown products for chemicals like ethylbenzene, styrene, and toluene in the bodies of children living near fracking wells at levels up to 91 times as high as the average American,” the researchers recounted. “The chemicals we found in the air and water - and inside of people’s bodies - are linked to a wide range of harmful health impacts, from skin and respiratory irritation to organ damage and increased cancer risk.”

Multiply potentially affected families by the 12,400 or so fracking wells estimated to be active in the state and the math becomes downright frightening.

Of course, none of this should be surprising to state leaders. The state’s Office of Attorney General released a wide-ranging report just last summer that outlined extensive environmental, public health and oversight problems related to the fracking industry. The state departments of Environmental Protection and Health both came in for criticism for failing to protect Pennsylvania’s citizens, often by embracing policies that placed profits above public health.

“When it comes to fracking, Pennsylvania failed,” state Attorney General Josh Shapiro said in unveiling the report. The EHN report adds yet another big, red “F” to the state’s hydrofracking report card.

It has also added urgency to stage lawmakers’ insistence that Pennsylvania respond. Nearly three dozen state senators and representatives have written to Wolf, urging his “immediate action in response to the ongoing harm to the public’s health and well-being due to hydraulic fracturing.”

Ongoing, indeed. As the lawmakers - all, like Wolf, Democrats - point out elsewhere in their letter, “This study adds to an ever-growing mountain of evidence … that demonstrate a connection between a person’s proximity to shale gas development and a host of negative human health conditions, significant ecological impacts, and dire economic projections for the affected individuals.”

There’s no argument here. Wolf acknowledged this reality just last month when he joined fellow members of the Delaware River Basin Commission in voting to ban hydrofracking throughout the 13,500-mile watershed.

Focus is now needed specifically in the state. The EHN pilot study findings are concerning, but are they representative? In writing to Wolf, the 35 state lawmakers urged replicating the EHN research on a broader scale.

The effects of fracking are already widely known - from the financial and job-creation benefits on the “credits” side of the ledger to the environmental degradation in the “debits” column. Granular information on specific health impacts will no doubt add to the latter. There is no point, however, in waiting another two years to gather that information before acting to mitigate the effects.

By all means, conduct expanded studies, but there is sufficient information on the public-health costs of hydrofracking - the 2020 attorney general’s report, for starters - to require the governor to respond to the question with which his colleagues ended their letter: “Does this administration honestly believe that fracking is safe for our families?”

If the answer is “no,” urgent action on new safety measures must follow.

___

Wilkes-Barre Times Leader. March 28, 2021.

Editorial: Our View: We support train station tourism office plan

For more years than we want to remember, it has seemed as if salvation for the historic downtown Wilkes-Barre train station was always just out of reach.

After interminable legal delays over development of surrounding parcels, and then a stalemate with the previous mayor over reprogramming an idle $1 million state grant, 2020 brought rays of hope.

New Mayor George Brown signaled to developer George Albert that he supported transferring that grant to the project, and on a hot July day Albert and a team of volunteers clawed back the boards and went into the Victorian structure to begin a thorough clean-up.

“We’re poised to start renovating this building before the end of August,” Albert said as a swarm of volunteers carried mattresses, garbage and mounds of other debris from the old station during a community clean-up on that summer Saturday morning.

“We’ve secured our funding, so that’s really the push for this effort today,” Albert told the Times Leader.

The funding Albert referenced is a $1 million state grant he and his group, Market Square Properties Development LLC, have asked to be reprogrammed to the station from the city-owned former First National Bank building on Public Square that Albert wanted to buy for a high-tech hub.

The group’s plan, Albert said last July, was to restore the station for office space and potentially also to host a Luzerne County visitors’ center and Planters Peanuts historical display, which Brown has been backing.

Fast forward to March 2021.

Last week, Albert made a statement to Luzerne County Council that sounded downright ominous.

“There’s absolutely no way that we’re going to begin any work without knowing the destiny of the building because, quite frankly, if we don’t have tenants we prefer just to simply raze the building, but that wasn’t our intention when we bought the property,” Albert told council.

The destiny in question involves a proposal for the county’s tourism and visitors’ bureau to occupy first-floor space in the 1869 station on Wilkes-Barre Boulevard.

Again, that’s consistent with what has been discussed for several years.

Councilman Walter Griffith expressed support for the concept last week but questioned why the county is deciding on a lease now instead of waiting until renovation is nearing completion.

That’s when Albert dropped his destiny or destruction bombshell remark.

As he explained to Griffith, renovation will cost $1.4 million, or almost $350 per square foot, so despite the $1 million state grant his company is still going to have to borrow money to make the renovation a reality.

Albert added that the rent he is charging the county will not generate a profit, is “straight reimbursable on cost” and “very, very very reasonable” for the amount being spent on the property.

The initial five-year lease to house the county bureau in 2,100 square feet at the station is proposed at $15.43 per square foot, which amounts to $32,400 annually. The rent would increase to $16.50 per square foot if the county opts for two renewals at three years each.

The bureau spends approximately $30,000 on rent at its current smaller 1,300-square-foot site on Public Square. No county general operating budget funds are required for a lease because the bureau is self-sufficient, relying primarily on hotel tax revenue, officials said.

Meanwhile, Albert is working with a commercial Realtor on leasing the upstairs space.

Yes, we support the preservation of this historic Wilkes-Barre landmark.

Yes, we think the tourism office deal sounds like a good one for the community and the taxpayers, and council should OK it.

As for Mr. Albert: We understand that this has been a long and frustrating process for him and his business. Hinting at possible demolition if that deal falls through may just be heavy-handed negotiating, but it’s also deeply disappointing to hear, especially with a $1 million state grant in play.

We’ve lost too many historic structures in this community. This one is worth saving.

END

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