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Setting the record straight

Commissioners address letter to Wolf calling for separation of nursing home COVID-19 cases from total

Not discounting deaths: Commissioner Gene DiGirolamo said the letter sent by the commissioners to Gov. Tom Wolf, asking COVID-19 cases at nursing homes to be separated from the grand total, was “misinterpreted in some circles.” Samantha Bambino / Times Photo

The Bucks County Commissioners touched on a number of subjects during a recent virtual news conference, including the creation of an Economic Development Task Force and the distribution of CARES Act funding to municipalities.

Still, the hot-button topic on most participants’ minds was the letter the commissioners sent to Gov. Tom Wolf on April 29, asking him to separate COVID-19 cases in nursing homes and long-term care facilities from the grand total. This would help Bucks County reach the metric of having fewer than 50 new cases per 100,000 residents, which is the requirement to enter into the less restrictive “yellow phase” of the governor’s plan.

According to Gene DiGirolamo, the letter has been “misinterpreted in some circles.”

“We weren’t asking him to discount the deaths in our nursing homes. Every one of those deaths are heartbreaking, tragic, and we mourn and pray along with the families,” DiGirolamo said. “What we were asking the governor is to give us here in Bucks County a little bit of flexibility because we believe that we have the community spread part of it somewhat under control.”

DiGirolamo added that community spread (residents not knowing where they were infected) has consistently dropped over time, and currently encompasses less than 10 percent of cases in the county. Additionally, the commissioners, along with Health Director Dr. David Damsker and Emergency Services Director Scott T. Forster, determined there are plenty of free hospital beds and ventilators.

“We didn’t have a problem with the math, 50 for every 100,000. But if you calculated the math with the nursing homes in there, it just looked like it would take months and months for us to be able to reach it. We weren’t recommending what math it should be, we just wanted them to take a look at that again,” explained chairwoman Diane Ellis-Marseglia.

When The Times went to print, Wolf had yet to give the commissioners a clear cut answer.

“If you read the quote from his press conference, he did say ‘no’ but with the caveat of ‘at this time.’ He also said, ‘We’ll see in the future if some consideration will be given to their request for some flexibility,’ ” said DiGirolamo. “So, I don’t think the governor completely shut the door on allowing us to have some flexibility with this.”

When asked about Montgomery County chairwoman Dr. Valerie Arkoosh’s comments that the commissioners’ request was “dehumanizing” to residents of nursing homes and long-term care facilities, the trio took it to heart.

“As one who has a mother in a county nursing home, I’m offended,” said Ellis-Marseglia. “It isn’t that we didn’t care, and it isn’t that we didn’t want numbers of nursing homes to necessarily count. We want the metric to be changed.”

When Bucks County does eventually enter the yellow phase, certain businesses are expected to reopen.

“I think retail stores that sell wares and goods that were declared a non-essential, they’ve been hopefully working on ways right now to retrofit their stores, put the Plexiglas up, to have the little marks on the floor to keep people 6 feet apart,” Damsker said. “The ones excluded from yellow, unfortunately, are gyms, hair salons, massage parlors.”

Based on feedback received through calls and emails, the commissioners said Bucks County residents seem to be split in half – some want to return to work, and some believe waiting a bit longer is safest.

“There’s a place in the middle that we can meet, and we can open a few things up with restrictions and do it very safely,” said DiGirolamo. “The health of everybody is the No. 1 priority.”

Commissioner Bob Harvie shared details on the Economic Recovery Task Force, which includes individuals from a wide range of businesses and backgrounds, including representatives from the Workforce Development Board of Bucks County, a president of a local bank and an elected official with a labor background.

“Right now, our focus is to figure out what’s the best way to help businesses as they may start to look toward that date in the future, and we don’t know what that date is going to be, when Bucks County may move from red to yellow. There are some questions that those business owners need to be asking right now about what guidelines they’re going to have to operate under,” he said. “We’re really trying to make the county a resource for business people. We’re also in the process of trying to set up a network of consultants who business owners can call for free just to get some information and counseling.”

The commissioners are in the process of creating a plan of distribution for federal CARES Act funding, portions of which will go toward businesses and emergency services. Harvie said they want to disperse the money in a fair way, while maintaining some flexibility in case COVID-19 resurfaces and more personal protective equipment is needed.

In a few final words, Damsker shared some statistics. When The Times went to print, more than 13,000 tests had been conducted in Bucks County, with a positivity rate of 25 percent; there was a total of 4,250 cases; and 367 deaths. All but 60 of the deaths have been residents of long-term care facilities who had underlying health conditions.

Visit buckscounty.org for more information.

Samantha Bambino can be reached at sbambino@newspapermediagroup.com

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