Apr 22, 2020
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf Coronavirus Briefing Transcript April 22
Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf held a COVID-19 press conference on April 22. He unveiled a color-coded plan for reopening Pennsylvania. Full transcript is here.
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Governor Tom Wolf: (04:40)
Thank you to everyone for joining me today. Last week I outlined the standards we will be following as we move toward reopening Pennsylvania.
Governor Tom Wolf: (04:50)
On Monday. I discussed a rollout date for the start of a series of reopenings on May 8th. Today I’m providing more information on the reopening process, including the criteria we will use and the phases that will come next.
Governor Tom Wolf: (05:05)
As I’ve said before, we will not just be flipping a switch and going from closed to open and ultimately the virus is going to set the timeline, not us. There is no single tool that we will use to determine reopenings. Rather, we will look at several pieces to ensure that our case count is under control and that we have the local support to manage the cases and outbreaks.
Governor Tom Wolf: (05:28)
First, we will use metrics set by the department of health. The initial benchmark we’re setting is for the population to have an average of less than 50 cases per 100,000 individuals over the course of 14 days in order to return to work but we’re also going to need to look at areas like testing rates, the ability to investigate cases, contact tracing capabilities and proximity to high risk settings.
Governor Tom Wolf: (05:55)
We’re also partnering with Carnegie Mellon University as they develop a modeling tool that will incorporate a number of public health and economic factors. We’ll use the health criteria and the CMU modeling tool to determine phases.
Governor Tom Wolf: (06:09)
They’re going to be three phases, red, yellow, and green. We’re currently obviously in the red phase statewide with only life sustaining businesses operating in Pennsylvania and staying at home, except to fulfill critical needs. As regions hit benchmarks that show that they’re ready, they’ll move to the yellow phase. Specifically, we’re monitoring the North Central and Northwest parts of Pennsylvania based on the criteria and the model with a goal of moving them to the LFAs on May 8th.
Governor Tom Wolf: (06:40)
This yellow phase will lift some restrictions including parts of the business closure order. The phase will continue to limit on things like high risk activities such as keeping school buildings closed, restricting restaurants to curbside pickup or delivery only. Allowing retail to reopen with protections in place for workers and customers and preventing large social gatherings and businesses will need to continue to prioritize telework or abide by worker safety guidelines if telework isn’t possible.
Governor Tom Wolf: (07:11)
Finally, a region will move to the green phase, which will include lifting the remaining parts of the stay-at-home orders but still require Pennsylvanians to adhere to CDC and department of health guidelines. An example would be to still require universal masking if the CDC and the department of health are recommending it when a region reaches this green phase. These steps will be in combination with a regional approach. If Southeast Pennsylvania continues to be a concern, reopening will be slower there than in places where the case counts has been low.
Governor Tom Wolf: (07:46)
When it comes to business sectors, we have already begun the process of reopening. As many of you know, the wine and spirits stores have curbside pickup. Online auto sales began on Monday and all construction will resume on May 1st, next Friday.
Governor Tom Wolf: (08:01)
I want to emphasize that Pennsylvanians should take the guidance given to their communities and their businesses seriously. The more a community commits to staying home and succeeds its suppressing the case count, the sooner and faster restrictions can be eased.
Governor Tom Wolf: (08:17)
We will be keeping a constant watch on our COVID-19 case figures and I will caution that we may announce a target date that will have to be pushed back due to new cases or we might reopen some areas or some businesses only to have them close again if the virus begins to resurge. I understand that not having definite dates for each of these pieces to fall into place is difficult but we will continue to provide updates as regions move from phase to phase.
Governor Tom Wolf: (08:48)
By using this measured step-by-step rollout of reopenings, we can continue to protect the lives of Pennsylvania, especially our most vulnerable but it will take continued help and support from everyone. On Friday we are going to reach the seven week mark since the first COVID-19 case was confirmed in Pennsylvania. At that time, we were watching this virus decimate communities in other countries. We had already been preparing for the coronavirus arrival for several weeks when we received that first positive test. Then we were unsure of how fast this virus would sweep across the Commonwealth or if we could get our hands on the necessary medical supplies quicker than people got sick.
Governor Tom Wolf: (09:33)
We began with the least invasive containment efforts, contact tracing, quarantining individuals who were exposed to a known case and asking people to self isolate if they had symptoms. As the case count grew, so did our efforts. We rolled out closures with high population activities like schools. We rolled out business closures and stay-at-home orders in counties where the virus was rapidly spreading.
Governor Tom Wolf: (09:59)
Finally, we issued statewide closures and stay-at-home orders.
Governor Tom Wolf: (10:02)
We issued statewide closures and stay-at-home orders. These incremental steps bought us time to slow the viruses speed and ultimately led us to flatten the curve. Many people are still getting sick from COVID-19, but the current pace allows every sick patient to receive the medical treatment they need. And while many families are grieving loved ones lost to the virus, we have not seen the devastation that other places have seen.
Governor Tom Wolf: (10:29)
You all have done so much to step up and avert what could have become a much, much worse tragedy. I know that you’re becoming weary. Some of you have been under stay-at-home orders for six weeks and that’s six weeks you haven’t been able to visit your family, go to the gym or browse in a store. Making this worse is the uncertainty of the future. We don’t know when we’re getting back to work, making it difficult to create personal financial plans.
Governor Tom Wolf: (10:57)
We don’t know when our kids are going to be able to resume activities like sports or school. We don’t even know if we should postpone that June wedding or cancel those summer vacation plans. And that’s hard because when you go through a rough patch, having something to look forward to really helps. So right now, I’m attempting to provide as much certainty as I can even though the virus ultimately controls the calendar for each and every one of us.
Governor Tom Wolf: (11:24)
As I said earlier, the more buy-in we get, the quicker we can suppress the virus and start to reopen. So let’s continue to stay at home for now when we can. Let’s work together and make the final push to get our case rate down and let’s get this pandemic under control so we can put plans on our schedules and get back to doing the things we love.
Governor Tom Wolf: (11:46)
I know that Pennsylvanians are strong and I have faith that all of you will continue to do your part. Thank you. And now I’m going to turn this over to Secretary Levine.
Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine: (12:13)
Good evening. Thank you, Governor. Here’s the latest information on COVID-19 in Pennsylvania. As of 12:00 AM this morning our statewide case total is 35,684 cases. 1,896 of those cases are in healthcare workers and 5,337 of those are residents of 407 long-term care living centers including nursing homes and personal care homes.
Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine: (12:49)
Today, tragically we have 1,662 deaths. This includes 1,325 confirmed deaths and 297 probable deaths using the criteria that we discussed yesterday. Helping Pennsylvanians return to work safely is one of the most important public health challenges that we face. Governor Wolf has laid out a plan that makes data-driven decisions that are in the best interest of public health.
Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine: (13:22)
We have to be very careful to balance the needs of our economy with our public health needs, and I believe strongly that this plan does exactly that. The department of health is now working on ways to bolster our contact tracing capabilities to meet the new challenges ahead.
Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine: (13:42)
We have a great community health office and community health nurses who have been at the heart of this effort working with our epidemiologists, our public health physicians and our infection control teams. And we are looking at the best ways to utilize these resources and amplify them with technology and staff. This work will be very important because it will help us identify early if an outbreak starts to happen.
Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine: (14:14)
Once we identify an outbreak, we can work to stop its spread by having people that are affected, isolate, and quarantine. These were the tactics that we used at the start of this pandemic to help slow the disease progression and help to mitigate its spread. It has proven effective.
Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine: (14:35)
In Pennsylvania, as the governor mentioned, is doing better than some of our neighbors have fared because of it. But social distancing is still our best defense against COVID-19. So as we return to work and to many of our normal routines, remember it is still vital to wear a mask when in public and to maintain social distancing. And as I always say, stay calm, stay home and stay safe. Now, here are my daily reminders. Please wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or the time it takes to sing happy birthday twice, or use hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available. Cover any coughs or sneezes with your elbow, not with your hands. Try not to touch your face, especially after touching surfaces and clean surfaces frequently.
Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine: (15:33)
And if you have to go out for life-sustaining activities, please wear a mask if you’re going to come into contact with others. These every day prevention measures can help slow the spread of the dangerous virus COVID-19 and give hope to our families in our communities that we will recover together. If you have questions about your health, please contact your healthcare provider. And if you need mental health resources because you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, please contact the crisis text line by texting PA to 741741 or call the statewide support and referral helpline at 1-855-284-2494. Again 1-855-284- 2494. For the most reliable information related to Pennsylvania’s response, please visit our website at health.pa.gov. And what is most important for Pennsylvanians to remember is stay calm, stay home and stay safe. And now the governor and I are pleased to answer questions.
Speaker 5: (16:55)
Thank you, Secretary. Our first question is for the Governor. Governor from the Altoona Mirror, a reader who needs to talk on the phone to an unemployment compensation call taker and who called five hours straight today with two 10-minute breaks, but still couldn’t get through. Ask, why can’t the Department of Labor and Industry extend phone hours into the evenings or weekends past the current daily stop time of 4:00 PM?
Governor Tom Wolf: (17:23)
we are trying as many things as we know how to do to increase the capacity. We were overwhelmed by the surge of initial applications for relief and there is no question that the systems have, we’re overwhelmed. So we are working really hard. We are doing a number of things. We’re adding people and more and more people we’re bringing [inaudible 00:17:49] retirees back to work in the call center.
Governor Tom Wolf: (17:53)
We’ve invested in new technology, we have invested in new people working in processing of the claims and we’re also even increasing employees, the number of employees in our mail room. So we recognize that we are far away from where we need to be. We’re better than we were a week and a half ago, two weeks ago, but we still have a ways to go and I apologize for the inconveniences this has caused and we’re working on it.
Speaker 5: (18:21)
Governor from the Associated Press, why wait until May 8th to reopen counties where there are so few cases? They’ll never hit 50 cases per 100,000 residents.
Governor Tom Wolf: (18:32)
Yeah, we’re trying to be as safe as we can and again, some of the statistics we’re looking at based on people staying at home. As we start to lift these orders, people will start to move around more freely and these numbers might change dramatically. We’re trying to be prudent and careful and we want to keep people safe. So May 8th we think is the soonest we can start to lift the orders even in areas that right now look like they’re doing quite well.
Speaker 5: (19:00)
The next question is for the Secretary. Dr. Levine from the Capitol Star. HAP said that it was in talks with the administration today about resuming non-emergent services as the lockdown eases. Can you characterize the state of those talks and what you would need to do to allow hospitals to start treating those patients?
Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine: (19:22)
Mm-hmm (affirmative). So that is correct. We have had discussions with the hospital association as well as a number of different health systems and hospitals about when would be the right time to allow non-emergent procedures to occur. Now remember, some of those are procedures that really have to happen for people’s health and they’ve been on hold and it’s really difficult.
Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine: (19:43)
So we are coming up with guidance, using their information and other information that we’ve obtained nationally to come up with the best way to move forward, to allow people to get the non-emergent, but urgent procedures that they need.
Speaker 5: (20:00)
Also, from the Capitol Star. We know that people are skittish about going to …
Speaker 6: (20:03)
Also from the Capital-Star, we know that people are skittish about going to hospitals. How will the state reassure them that it’s safe once the lockdown is over?
Dr. Levine: (20:09)
Well, so as the governor has mentioned, this is not going to be one day where the lockdown is over, it’s going to go in a measured, progressive approach region by region, using the data that we have from a public health perspective and also the models from Carnegie Mellon University. And so when we are able to do that we’ll feel very confident that people who go to a hospital for other purposes, for instance, than COVID-19 will be safe.
Speaker 6: (20:37)
From NewsTalk 104.1, why are county coroners and medical examiners not being informed of COVID-19 deaths beyond the daily press release? And as a follow up, would that be the best practice to slow the spread of the virus?
Dr. Levine: (20:51)
Well, so we have… Drawing a balance between the hospitals and the coroners, and we’ve had discussions with both, and we’re going to try to strike the right balance in terms of death reporting into our data systems, and I plan to reach out to the corners to listen to their concerns, to the coroner’s guidance that we put out, and try to strike that balance.
Speaker 6: (21:15)
Also from one 104.1, is Pennsylvania receiving any funding sources based on the number of COVID-19 cases or deaths, and if so, where are those funding sources coming from?
Dr. Levine: (21:25)
Well, from the public health perspective, we have received funding from the CDC in terms of our public health response. And then of course there are the funding that has been approved by Congress for relief of small businesses, for relief of hospitals, et cetera.
Speaker 6: (21:43)
From WNEP, regarding the state of now counting probable deaths. Roughly four out of five of COVID-19 cases come back negative. How can COVID-19 be listed as a cause or a contributing factor in a death if no test has been done?
Dr. Levine: (21:58)
Well, so it depends upon the circumstances for that patient and how tragically they passed away, so it might have to do in terms of what symptoms they had, how their clinical course was consistent with COVID-19, and other determinations by the hospital or healthcare system that was taking care of that patient.
Dr. Levine: (22:17)
It would also be determined by the context that that person had, for instance, if they were in a household where we know there was a patient with COVID-19, or maybe in a longterm care living facility which had significant number of cases. Then we can make that determination of a probable death from COVID-19.
Speaker 6: (22:36)
The next question is for the governor. Governor, from the Daily Press, there was an article making the rounds online Tuesday citing the latest computer projections from the University of Washington. The map included showing the earliest date after which relaxing social distancing might be possible in each state, with containment strategies including testing, contact tracing, isolation, and limited gathering size was May 25th to the 31st for Pennsylvania. Is the state taking any of this data into consideration, or is the state continuing to target May 8th as this date for it to begin reopening regardless of what the models say?
Governor Tom Wolf: (23:20)
No, in fact the University of Washington model is very important. The challenge is that Pennsylvania is not the same all over the state right now. The cases are concentrated in the southeast and the northeast, and as you move farther west the density of cases declined. So what we’re trying to do with this measured and phased reopening is to look at Pennsylvania as it really is, not as one monolithic thing, but as a place that is very different and very diverse. And so May 8th is when we’re going to be starting, and we’ll be rolling this out just as we close down in a phased way, we’re going to be reopening in a phased way.
Speaker 6: (24:02)
Governor, from WTAE, has there been any change in the enforcement of traffic violations on Pennsylvania’s highways?
Governor Tom Wolf: (24:10)
No. I mean, not as far as the state’s concerned. I can’t speak for all the municipalities around the state, but no, not as far as the state’s concerned.
Speaker 6: (24:18)
And also, can you tell us more about how your administration plans to enforce the order for people to wear masks when they leave their home?
Governor Tom Wolf: (24:25)
Yeah, the enforcement, it’s self enforcement. We’re providing guidelines as to how we can work together to defeat this virus. The virus is setting the timeline, the virus is determining what we need to do. We may or may not like it, but this is what we have to do. So enforcement really comes down to each individual making the decision that they don’t want to infect somebody they are near to, someone they love, a neighbor, a coworker. And that’s ultimately what is going to defeat this virus here in Pennsylvania. All of us, 12. 8 million Pennsylvanians working together to decide that we’re not going to let this virus defeat us. We’re going to beat the virus.
Speaker 6: (25:08)
Also from WTAE, today a widespread outage effected Armstrong Cable customers near the Pittsburgh area, affecting many people who are working from home. Is your administration planning to do anything that would help utility companies respond to outages like that, or even power outages while many families are staying at home?
Governor Tom Wolf: (25:28)
Pennsylvania has in place a number of things that we do to help public utilities when this kind of thing happens, and we’ve been doing that all along. We will continue to do that throughout this crisis.
Speaker 6: (25:39)
Governor, from the Associated Press, did the governor move the resumption of construction to May 1st instead of May 8th?
Governor Tom Wolf: (25:47)
Speaker 6: (25:48)
Okay, and our next question is for the secretary. Dr. Levine, from WNEP, we talked to county commissioners from Susquehanna and Sullivan counties, two counties with small populations that have few cases of COVID-19. Commissioners are concerned that if they reopen before other counties, that people from other counties where they’re still shut down will flock in to this county that’s starting to reopen. Is there anything those counties can do to protect themselves from that?
Dr. Levine: (26:28)
I think that that’s unlikely. Again, I think everyone in the state will be looking at the reopenings with the progressive approach that the governor has outlined, and know that when their area and their county has less cases, then they’ll reopen as well. So I think it’s unlikely that we’re going to see this large spread of people trying to get to the counties that have opened, and we are going to have in place though very careful testing, which will be really important for symptomatic individuals to see if they have COVID-19, and then we’re going to have the contact tracing that we talked about so we can isolate that person, trace their contacts, and then have them in quarantine and try to prevent any type of outbreak.
Speaker 6: (27:17)
From Spotlight PA, on April 2nd the CDC released guidance confirming that in cases where a definite diagnosis of COVID-19 cannot be made, it is acceptable to report that as a COVID-19 death on the death certificate as probable or presumed. Why did the state wait until April 21st to include probable deaths into its count?
Dr. Levine: (27:37)
Well, so it has taken time for us to reconcile a number of our different data sources, but also we’ve been viewing charts, hospital charts, et cetera to make that determination that an individual was a probable case, and so it has taken time to collect this data and now we’re reporting it.
Speaker 6: (27:58)
And then they’re also asking about coroners, that coroners have continued to say they cannot make sense of the state’s death numbers. Why do you think that’s happening?
Dr. Levine: (28:13)
Well, we are getting our death numbers from hospitals, from health systems, from longterm care living facilities, from our county municipal health department partners as well as the coroners, and we will work with the coroners to make sure that we reconcile all our data and that we’re all on the same page.
Speaker 6: (28:30)
One more question from Spotlight PA. This week saw two big spikes in the number of deaths reported. One from an addition of probable deaths, and one from the reconciliation of the data. Are there other situations the department is currently investigating that might lead to similar spikes?
Dr. Levine: (28:45)
No, those were the two epidemiological reconciliations that we had to do, first to bring together our different data sources, and then to have the determination and be at the place where we could add the probable deaths, and those are the only changes we’ll be making.
Speaker 6: (29:01)
From the Philadelphia Inquirer, this is a question for Dr. Levine. I’m wondering how you’re personally doing, and what you do when you get overwhelmed by all of this?
Dr. Levine: (29:10)
Well, I’m doing very well, thank you. I’m trying to get enough sleep and to eat well and get rest when I can, and I tend to be a pretty calm person anyway. I’ve mentioned that I’ve had a lot of clinical experience, and it’s very important to stay calm when faced with clinical emergencies, so it comes pretty naturally to me, but thank you for asking.
Speaker 6: (29:32)
Thank you, Secretary. The next question is for the governor. Governor, from Penn Live, can you define the north central and northwest regions of the state? Since you say they are the closest to seeing a lift, what counties would be involved?
Governor Tom Wolf: (29:51)
Well, the counties that I’m looking at are counties like Tioga, and as far west as McKean County. Those are the areas that we’re looking at this point-
Governor Tom Wolf: (30:03)
County. Those are the areas that we’re looking at this point, but again, the data is going to drive this in the central northwestern part of the state. These are the areas we see the lowest density. Again, we’re going to be applying the metrics that I mentioned of the number of cases per 100,000 people to make sure that we’re doing this in a data-driven, evidence-based way
Speaker 7: (30:28)
From Telemundo. Will the state or the counties have a final say on when to reopen?
Governor Tom Wolf: (30:35)
Actually we have to look at the state. The Commonwealth has to look out for the interests of the entire state. Obviously we work in partnership, close partnership with the counties, but the ultimate call is going to be looking at the interest of the state, people all over the state, of people moving from place to place. Let’s take a look at this from that perspective. Again, ultimately, the virus determines how we do this, how successful we are, what our timetable is, and every single Pennsylvanian. Every one of the 12.8 million Pennsylvanians will determine how successful we are in fighting this virus and where.
Speaker 8: (31:18)
Governor. From Newstalk 104.1. Tomorrow the Pennsylvania Senate is holding a public hearing on your administration’s response to COVID-19 and its impacts. What is your reaction?
Governor Tom Wolf: (31:29)
I think that’s what happens in a democracy. Transparency is absolutely essential. The free press looks over our shoulder. Every single citizen of Pennsylvania who we work for looks over our shoulder and I think the state legislature, this is part of their responsibility.
Speaker 9: (31:48)
Governor. From Fox 43. Will hairdressers and barbers be allowed to reopen under the yellow phase?
Governor Tom Wolf: (32:00)
I don’t know at this point. That’s a good question. We just haven’t determined that, so we have not got that granular.
Speaker 9: (32:02)
And some outlets are actually asking about the clarification of 50 per 100,000 cases for 14 days. Clarifying that metric, PennLife, PA Post, PBS 38, and the Tribune Review are all asking about the rationale for that and what does that criteria mean?
Governor Tom Wolf: (32:22)
Well, I should turn that over to the secretary for that. There’s a good rationale. So secretary Levine.
Secretary Levine: (32:31)
Thank you governor. From a public health perspective, we’re really looking at areas that have not had widespread community transmission, that there might have been some cases, but not certainly as much transmission as we have seen, as the Governor pointed out, in the Southeast, in the Northeast, even in Allegheny County. So he had mentioned several counties and areas and regions of North Central and Northwest Pennsylvania that really have had few cases we know of. So we need to make sure that we have adequate testing, which we will do, and feel very comfortable with that type of venture.
Speaker 10: (33:06)
Secretary, as a follow up. And this question’s for the Governor as well from Penn Life. You talked about the criteria that there’s a yellow phase as 50 cases per 100,000. What is the case count criteria to move a region into green and has that been established yet?
Governor Tom Wolf: (33:24)
That has not been established. But let me just follow up from what the secretary said. We’re looking at trying to have this be a data-driven, evidence-based decision that we’re making here. We’re looking at places where the virus seems to be having a truly minimal impact. And we’ve chosen this, I have to say is somewhat arbitrary, but it’s a good reflection and it’s an objective reflection of something that basically is minimal. Should it be 45 for 100,000 or should it be 55? We’ve decided this, and I think this is again, that the overall effort is to say, let’s all of us watch the same objective metric and let’s all of us recognize and agree that what we’re trying to get to is a place where there is truly a minimal impact of the virus on the lives of the people in that area.
Speaker 7: (34:15)
Our last question is for Secretary Levine. Secretary, from the Citizens Voice it was announced that beginning Thursday, April 23rd at the Mohegan Sun arena site, that they’ll be open from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM daily to test symptomatic Northeastern Pennsylvania residents. What prompted the move to testing anyone who’s symptomatic, not just those over the age of 65 and up?
Secretary Levine: (34:41)
Well, we feel from a public health perspective, it’s important to loosen that criteria. And that’s because we have been able to obtain more of the reagents and chemicals to increase our testing capacity. All of the samples being obtained from that site are being tested actually at our public health laboratory in Exton, and through work with the federal government we have been able to obtain more reagents so we can do more tests. And so I think it would be really important to get a even better sense of the penetrance of COVID-19 to be able to test really anybody who is symptomatic. We do not have the ability yet to do widespread population-based testing of asymptomatic people, of people who have no symptoms, but we wanted to loosen the criteria.
Speaker 7: (35:28)
And as a followup they’re asking about any addition of phone registration for the testing side at Mohegan Sun.
Secretary Levine: (35:34)
Yes. So tomorrow we will be able to take registration using our Department of Health phone number, which is 1-877-PA-HEALTH. So people can call that number and our professionals answering the phone will be able to schedule them to get the test at that site. So we’re very pleased to add that. It’s very important.
Speaker 11: (35:54)
Thank you so much Secretary and thank you Governor. For the reporters whose questions we were not able to answer, the Department of Health and Governor’s Communications Office will follow up within the next 24 hours. Thank you so much. And our next briefing will be tomorrow.