May 22, 2020
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf Coronavirus Briefing Transcript May 22
Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf held a coronavirus press conference on May 22. He announced that all PA counties will be in ‘yellow’ COVID-19 reopening phase by June 5. Read the full news briefing speech here.
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Governor Tom Wolf: (00:08)
Thank you all for joining me. This weekend is the unofficial start of summer. And I think I speak for a lot of folks when I say it feels as though a minute past and at eternity both since Pennsylvania’s first known COVID-19 case on March 6th. Back then there were many unknowns about this virus. We didn’t know how severe Pennsylvania’s outbreak would become or if we could stop it from growing. And we knew life would be different now that this virus existed, we didn’t know how different it would be. Today we have a lot more answers than we did back then. We know not only that we succeeded in slowing the growth, but that our actions our collective decisions to stay at home and avoid social contact, we know that all that saved lives. A study by Drexel University shows that in Philadelphia alone, 60 days of staying at home resulted in more than 7,000 lives saved.
Governor Tom Wolf: (01:04)
And it prevented more than 68,000 people from needing hospitalization, that was in Philadelphia alone. My stay at home order did exactly what it was intended to do, it saved lives. And over the past two weeks, we have seen sustained reductions in hospitalizations. From May 8th to yesterday, the number of COVID-19 patients hospitalized dropped by nearly 1000 from 2,618 to 1,667. And the number of COVID patients on ventilators shrank by about a third from 505 to 347. Our new case rate has been shrinking. It’s shrank by more than half from May 8th to May 15th. And it declined by another third from May 15th just to yesterday. Many other States are seeing their new case rate continue to increase or remain flat. We have sustained this decline even as we’re reopening businesses and resuming in activities and our ability to detect and isolate new cases continues to improve with each passing day.
Governor Tom Wolf: (02:06)
Since May 8th, our number of daily lab tests has increased by 65% from 7,888 to 13,085 each day. And we now have testing at more than 300 locations across the state in almost every County. We’re continuing to ramp up our response team and with the development of the Commonwealth civilian coronavirus core, we’re laying out a roadmap to have the capacity in place to cope with a fall resurgence if one occurs. Our ability to identify and isolate cases of COVID-19 has increased, and this will allow every Pennsylvania in our Commonwealth to resuming more normal life without constant fear of contracting COVID-19. As of this morning, 49 counties have moved into Pennsylvania’s yellow phase. And today I’m announcing that on Friday, May 29th next Friday, that number will increase to 57 with the addition of Dolphin, Franklin, Huntington, Lebanon, Lucerne, Monroe, Pike and Schuylkill counties. And we anticipate the remainder of the state to be moved into the yellow phase by June 5th.
Governor Tom Wolf: (03:17)
We have been closely monitoring these yellow phase counties for signs of outbreaks. We’ve had a few incidents that have caused some concern, but overall we’ve seen most areas continue to maintain or reduce their COVID-19 new case count. So on Friday, May 29th, 17 counties will move into the green phase. Those counties are Bradford, Cameron, Clarion, Clearfield, Crawford, Elk, forest, Jefferson, Lawrence, McKean, Montour, Potter, Snyder, Sullivan, Tioga, Venango and Warren. Now, unless emphasize that moving into the green phase will still require precautions to keep our communities and our families safe, COVID-19 continues to be a threat to our health and welfare. And unfortunately that won’t change until we have a vaccine or a cure. So while these counties will see a return to near normalcy, some precautions will continue to be in effect for the safety of residents. These precautions will provide the greatest freedom while preventing certain situations that are known to be catalysts for the transmission of COVID-19.
Governor Tom Wolf: (04:26)
While all businesses may resume operations, including restaurants and bars, many will have reduced capacity. Large entertainment gatherings such as concerts, festivals, sporting events will continue to be restricted. Teleworking will continue to be encouraged. Nursing home visitation will continue to be restricted and hospitals and prisons may have visitation restricted on a case by case basis if deemed necessary. And guidance from the CDC and the department of health must continue to be observed. And this includes wearing masks in public, washing your hands, using hand sanitizer, self isolating when sick and implementing social distancing.
Governor Tom Wolf: (05:08)
The more people who take precautions, the more likely we are to succeed at suppressing COVID-19. Above all else, it’s on us as Pennsylvanians to keep our community safe and healthy. So wear a mask when you’re around others, wash your hands, use hand sanitizer and stay home if you’re sick. Lastly, I want to thank all Pennsylvanians who have made tremendous sacrifices since this virus emerged in Pennsylvania. I want to remember and honor all of those who we lost and I want to give solace to their families and their loved ones. The last two months have been trying and they have tested each of us. And I want to thank and acknowledge all the people of our Commonwealth who have been called upon to up in their lives to keep their neighbors, friends and their family safe, thank you. And now I’m going to turn things over to secretary Dr. Levine.
Dr. Levine: (06:19)
Thank you, governor. Here’s our latest update on COVID-19 in Pennsylvania. As of 12:00 AM this morning, we have 866 new cases of COVID- 19. This brings our statewide total to 66,258 Pennsylvanians who have tested positive for COVID-19 in all 67 counties. We have new data to report that 57% of these cases have recovered from the virus. This means that for 57% of patients who have tested positive for COVID-19, it has been 30 days past the date of their first positive test or onset of symptoms.
Dr. Levine: (07:06)
There are 481 patients who have a positive serology test, that’s an antibody test and either have had COVID-19 symptoms or high risk of exposure to the virus. These cases are considered probable cases and are not considered confirmed cases. Only confirmed cases are taken into consideration in any of our metrics and our calculations. Tragically 4,984 deaths in Pennsylvania have been attributed to COVID-19. As you know, we have been carefully watching the progress counties have made in ensuring case counts, continue to decline while they are in the yellow phase. Instead of setting a new bar for counties to meet our metrics to move a County from red-
Secretary Levine: (08:03)
Bar for counties to meet our metrics to move a county from red to yellow have proven to be sufficient to forecast how a County will react when social distancing is relaxed and when they move to the green zone. We have been monitoring the first 24 counties that moved to yellow closely to see if there has been a significant change over the last 14 days now that social distancing has been relaxed. The 17 counties going to green have been able to maintain the yellow metrics for 14 days, showing that they are ready to make this move to the green phase.
Secretary Levine: (08:40)
As we increase testing, a specific incident rate such as the 50 per 100,000 is less critical now as a metric. Remember, there have always been numerous metrics being used to move counties to yellow. These include analysis on community impact from the Carnegie Mellon University, as well as contact tracing, testing, capacity and hospital capacity. To help make all of our recommendations to the governor, our team of epidemiologists, physicians, nurses, and emergency management staff and I consult regularly with many academic experts from Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Pennsylvania, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and others really from throughout the country. We are confident that our contact tracing and testing resources in the 17 counties moving to green are sufficient to carefully continue to monitor for any signs of resurgence of the virus. Pennsylvanians have shown once again that they have the resolve to win the battle against COVID-19 and have been able to resume activities in the yellow zone without increasing the risk of infection. Now, here are my daily reminders. Please wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, or as we all know now, the time it takes to sing happy birthday twice, use hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available, cover any coughs or sneezes with your elbow, not with your hands.
Secretary Levine: (10:21)
Don’t touch your face, especially after touching surfaces and please continue to clean surfaces frequently. If you have to go out for life sustaining activities, please wear a mask if you’re going to come into contact with others. 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 Textline by texting PA to 741741 or call the statewide support and referral helpline at 1-855-284-2494.
Secretary Levine: (11:06)
Again, 1-855-284-2494. For the most reliable information on Pennsylvania’s response to COVID-19, please visit our website at health.pa.gov. And what is most important for Pennsylvania is to remember, to stay calm, stay home, and stay safe. And now I’ll turn things over to Director Padfield.
Director Padfield: (11:41)
Thank you, Secretary Levine and Governor Wolf. Good afternoon. PEMA remains engaged daily in support of the Department of Health in the response to COVID-19 crisis across Pennsylvania. As a majority of citizens and businesses across the commonwealth are now focusing on reopening and getting back to a new normal for the foreseeable future, we continue to be focused on supporting the Department of Health and the counties in the continued response and recovery efforts. This will undoubtedly be one of the longest incidents that PEMA and the county and municipal emergency management professionals that we work with on a daily basis have seen in some time, and in some cases, the longest sustained operation they have ever managed in their entire career.
Director Padfield: (12:26)
Unfortunately, despite the best efforts and all of the efforts and the results of those efforts as the governor talked about and Secretary Levine, despite those best efforts of the public and the businesses to adhere to social distancing and infection control standards, there will still be individuals who become infected and vulnerable populations that will remain at risk. In emergency management, our mantra is the plan for the worst and expect the best. We understand that there is no perfect plan and that every plan needs to be adjusted for any given situation. That has definitely been the case with this complex and challenging pandemic. A lot of what we do comes down to people, having the right people with the right skills, knowledge, and ability to apply those in any given situation provides for the best outcomes. That is the focus or that is what we focus on every day. Our agency is committed to continuing to refine and improve these processes that have been put in place during the initial response phases of this incident, to support our county partners who continue to support the citizens during this evolving pandemic.
Director Padfield: (13:35)
As the public works to establish the new normal in response to COVID-19, our agency is also focused on what the new normal looks like for emergency management and emergency response operations for the foreseeable future as well. There undoubtedly will be additional challenges with response operations during the coming months, both with COVID-19 or whether it is from another natural or human caused disaster. Just as FEMA is looking at how response and recovery operations can be safely accomplished as we enter into hurricane season, our agency will be working to modify and adapt procedures as they relate to any one of a number of other emergencies that we see on a regular basis in the commonwealth to be able to make sure they are safe and effective.
Director Padfield: (14:20)
We look forward to working with our state agency partners and our county and municipal partners who are so key in being able to accomplish response operations as we define the new normal and continue to meet the needs of the citizens in the commonwealth during this continued public health emergency. And now I’ll turn it over for questions.
Speaker 3: (14:40)
Thank you, Director. Our first question is for the governor. Governor, from the Associated Press. To what extent are you responding to real world pressure in lifting restrictions when 21 counties are still over the threshold of 50 cases per 100,000 residents for the past two weeks?
Governor Tom Wolf: (15:02)
Yeah. Again, as we’ve said many times, the 50 per 100,000, and I’m not sure why that was fixed upon. That was one of many statistics that we had and we set that back in a time when we had less capacity knew less about this disease than we know now. I think back then, we might’ve been able to do four to 5,000 tests a day. We’re now up to 12 to 13,000 tests a day, and we know more about what is happening with this virus and where we’re showing success. So I think we know more, we’re doing a better job. What hasn’t changed is the focus on keeping people safe.
Governor Tom Wolf: (15:41)
I think we know more about how to do that now.
Speaker 3: (15:44)
From the Philadelphia Inquirer. Regarding the Philadelphia region’s moved to yellow on June 5th, if you do the math as of today, the region enters the 14 day window in which it would need to have 50 new cases per 100,000, according to your benchmark. As of today, May 22nd was the first day of that 14 day period. Philadelphia in its color-
Speaker 4: (16:03)
“… May 22nd was the first day of that 14 day period. Philadelphia and its collar counties aren’t close to that number. Do the Philadelphia area counties still have to meet this benchmark in order to move to yellow on that date, or will you be abandoning that metric and moving them into yellow regardless?”
Governor Tom Wolf: (16:16)
As I said, we have never used that metric exclusively. We never did. And as we know more and have more ability to test, know more about this disease, we have broadened the number of things that we look at. That date is still two weeks out and we feel comfortable and confident that by that date, June 5th, Philadelphia will be in a position that its citizens can safely move into the yellow phase.
Speaker 4: (16:46)
From Spotlight PA, “Governor Wolf, is there something special about June 5th? And how did the administration pick that date?”
Governor Tom Wolf: (16:56)
Again, we look at what we can do to keep people safe. And it looks to us as though, within the next two weeks, the entire state, every county in the state, will be able to either be in the yellow or as I mentioned today, some counties in the green phase.
Speaker 4: (17:15)
From the Centre Daily Times, “Centre County was among the first counties to move into the yellow phase and has seen limited cases since. What metric or metrics has kept it from moving on to the green phase for May 29th?”
Governor Tom Wolf: (17:27)
Well, actually no metrics. Local officials in Centre County said that they didn’t feel that Centre County was ready to move. And so we honored their request that they not move into the green. I think they’ve done a phenomenal job. You’re absolutely right. And yet they don’t feel they’re ready. And we were sensitive to their request.
Speaker 4: (17:51)
Moving on to questions about religious gatherings. From 6 ABC, “The president deemed houses of worship essential saying he is overriding governors that left them closed and said that governors left liquor and abortion clinics opened. He said he’s ordering you to open churches. What is your reaction to the president ordering you to do something, and will churches be able to hold services this Sunday?”
Governor Tom Wolf: (18:14)
We actually never closed religious organizations. Again, this is one of the areas where, say, if you are a leader of any religious organization, I think your first mission is to keep your parishioners safe, your congregants safe. And that’s always been true. So we actually never shut down the religious organizations. We did, however, shut down liquor stores.
Speaker 4: (18:45)
We have two questions about the reopening process. I’ll start with NBC10. “You’ve been working in tandem with New Jersey governor and other Northeastern governors when it comes to reopening, but are urging Pennsylvanians not to go to the beach this weekend. Do you think the shore reopened too quickly? If the New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland governors think they can reopen safety safely, what guidance would you advise Pennsylvanians looking to get away this weekend?”
Governor Tom Wolf: (19:10)
Yeah. Well, first of all, again, as I kept saying, we are in the seven state consortium and we do share information. We work together, but that doesn’t mean that we have to work in lockstep, that we agree on everything. So New Jersey has decided, Delaware and Maryland have decided that they’re going to open their beaches. Personally, I’m not going to the beach. I’m staying home in York County. And I think that it’s still, as I said in my remarks earlier, whether you’re in yellow, red, or green, we still need to do everything we can to defeat this virus. And going to places where the virus has a greater chance to spread is probably not a good idea.
Speaker 4: (19:57)
From 6 ABC, ” Again asking a question about the coordinated efforts with Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, and New York. And why haven’t you reopened states under the same guidelines?”
Speaker 5: (20:09)
As the other states.
Speaker 4: (20:13)
Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, New York, why haven’t they opened under the same guidelines?
Governor Tom Wolf: (20:18)
As I said, we’re seven different states and we have very different ideas. We answer to a different set of citizens, constituents. And our working together in harmony where we can is a great idea, but nowhere in this consortium has anybody moved into it under the misimpression that we’re actually going to try to do everything in lockstep. We don’t.
Speaker 4: (20:42)
Our next question is for Secretary Levine. Secretary, from WGAL, “Why are the nursing home numbers different from what some counties are reporting? For instance, the state reported 32 deaths at Conestoga View in Lancaster while the coroner shows 64 as of a day ago.”
Secretary Levine: (21:04)
Well, I’ll have to look into those specifics, but our way of reporting deaths is different than the way the county coroners report deaths. And we have discussed this at previous press conferences. We are required with working with the CDC to report deaths in terms of the person’s county or state of residence. The county coroners report deaths according to where the person passed away. And so, frequently, a person might have passed away in one county, but they’re a resident of another county, and we count that differently. So we will always have some differences in terms of our counts with the county corners, because of that different reporting system.
Speaker 4: (21:48)
You said that the recovery rate statewide is 57%. When will the recovery rate be available on a county by county basis?
Secretary Levine: (21:56)
We don’t plan to do that at this time. Again, today is the first day that we have reported recovery rates at all. So we could consider that in the future, but for now we’re going to be continuing to report it this way.
Speaker 4: (22:09)
From Lehigh Valley Live, “The seven day rolling average of new cases appears to have slowed, remaining largely unchanged for much of this week. Is this a sign that the recovery is stalling? And how concerning is it?”
Secretary Levine: (22:21)
I think overall the rolling average is so decreases. It is always going to have some variation and some change, but we feel very confident in the decreasing rate of new cases that we’re having. We also feel very comfortable that the percent positive of new cases, so if you look at the total number tested and then the percent positive cases, is continuing to go down really in all the regions and particularly in the southeast. So we feel very comfortable with the approach that the governor is taking.
Speaker 4: (22:53)
From the Post Gazette, “Despite the state’s release of data on cases and deaths in nursing homes, some nursing homes continue to try to say they won’t comment about what led to their outbreaks or what they’ve done to try to mitigate the outbreaks because of HIPAA. What do you think about nursing and personal care homes refusing to comment about their outbreaks and explain what they’ve done or how the outbreaks occurred?”
Secretary Levine: (23:17)
Well, we have talked all along that we have worked with every single facility, every single nursing home, and every single personal care home that have had cases of COVID-19. We’ve actually worked with all of the facilities in terms of education, in terms of guidance, in terms of infection control, in terms of pushing out personal protective equipment. But I want to emphasize, we don’t run the nursing homes. We don’t run the personal care homes. We regulate them. We license them. We inspect them. We educate them. We push out personal protective equipment. We do consultations and infection control procedures. And if absolutely necessary, we send in the National Guard. But we don’t run them, and they’ll have to make their own decisions about what kind of data and information they re-
Secretary Levine: (24:03)
… To make their own decisions about what kind of data and information they report.
Speaker 6: (24:06)
From The Citizens’ Voice, “If CMS announced two weeks ago that they would be making public nursing home and personal care home COVID-19 data, why did you issue an order to personal care homes only yesterday to begin reporting their COVID data as of May 28th?”
Secretary Levine: (24:22)
Well, we’re working really closely with the department of human services and issued the order at that time. So we don’t regulate the personal care homes, DHS does. And with our collaboration, we were able to produce this order to have the information released.
Speaker 6: (24:38)
And from CHNI, “Can high school and college graduations be held in green counties?”
Secretary Levine: (24:43)
So I believe that the Pennsylvania Department of Education has said that it is really up to local officials in terms of how they hold commencement and graduation ceremonies. But as the governor said, the green counties will still have some restrictions in terms of the number of people congregating. We’ll be putting out the specific guidance for green counties next week. And so I would look to that, but each school has to make their own decisions in terms of commencement.
Speaker 6: (25:15)
And then, the next question is for you and for Director Padfield from NewsTalk 104.1. “With the staffing shortage issues at Manorcare Jersey Shore is experiencing, will the national guard be deployed to fill that void?”
Secretary Levine: (25:28)
Well, first let me speak in terms of that facility. So we know that they have been challenged, and we have been working with them for weeks now. We have had specific consultations and guidance, and been working with that staff really every day to try to help the residents and the staff at those facilities. In terms of The National Guard, I’ll ask Director Padfield to comment.
Director Padfield: (25:54)
Thank you, Secretary Levine. So the decision to really engage The National Guard on nursing home, Dr. Levine talked about is there’s really a tiered response. So we really start with really a contact with that home to be able to see what their needs happen to be. And then there are a number of issues or things that we can do to be able to address the staffing needs. Usually, when we exhaust all of those other methods to be able to deal with staffing, then we’ll take a look at sending The National Guard in. And most recently we’re actually getting additional support for nursing homes, The National Guard, especially when it comes to direct medical personnel is a little limited in the Commonwealth, and FEMA is actually providing us additional support through the US Public Health Service and health and human services to provide additional medical personnel. So we build capability and capacity to be able to support those nursing homes.
Speaker 6: (26:48)
Our next question is for the governor. Governor, 6abc, Fox43, NBC10, all have questions about swimming pools. “Are swim clubs opening yellow phase now, as previously pools have been closed until green? And summer camps that have swimming, are they open? Is there a limit?”
Governor Tom Wolf: (27:11)
Again, we’re opening summer day camps only. And that is because they play a big role in providing childcare for people who need to work. And so we think that’s a good thing for the economy. And we think with the outdoor living that goes along with the rural day camps, that that would be a good thing for Pennsylvania.
Speaker 6: (27:44)
From WPXI, “This question is for governor Wolf. Some of your critics now contend you have no plan in place and are just making it up as you go along, they say that’s evidenced by your decision now to allow summer camps and pools to open under yellow. What prompted this reversal and how do you respond to your critics?”
Governor Tom Wolf: (28:03)
Actually, as I said earlier, we always had one focus, and that is doing everything we can to defeat this virus. We know more now than we did two months ago, or even three weeks ago. And as we learn more, not too long ago, we were able to do a few thousand tests a day. We’re now up to 12, 13,000 tests a day. We can do things, we know things, we have models in place, we have worked with other states, with other governors, with healthcare professionals. And so we are adapting to new science. But again, there has been a single minded focus on keeping people safe. That was true when we started this whole process, it’s true today, and that has not changed, and it won’t change.
Speaker 6: (28:54)
From WEEU, “Governor Wolf, can you explain why you declared flag manufacturers non-essential businesses?”
Governor Tom Wolf: (29:03)
Again, looking for every opportunity to keep people safe and to allow people to stay in their homes. I’d just like to point out that while flag manufacturing was considered non-essential, we did allow the distribution of flags. So, again, trying to do everything we could in Pennsylvania to keep people safe. And as I said earlier, I think this has worked.
Speaker 6: (29:30)
And our last question today is from WKOK. “You are currently operating the state using special disaster emergency powers. Those powers can be removed by the general assembly, but you could then once again, declare the powers necessary. If it’s up to you, how long would you operate the state under the powers given to you by a disaster emergency?”
Governor Tom Wolf: (29:50)
I think I’m trying to do what a democracy is supposed to do when we’re all faced with a crisis. And that is actually act. And the constitution gives people in the executive branch at the federal level and at the state level, I think in every state, the ability to establish an emergency disaster declaration, that’s what I’ve done here. And it has helped me do things quickly, and do things that I would not be able to do if I didn’t have this. This is how democracy works in times of crisis, it has worked like this from the very beginning of our Republic, and I don’t think there’s any reason to change that constitutionally. I may say that I am absolutely sensitive to the requirements of a democratic system, and I want to do everything I can within the confines of the constitution. And as soon as I think the crisis has passed, I will move away from this disaster declaration.
Speaker 6: (30:51)
Thank you, governor, thank you, secretary and Director Padfield, that concludes our briefing for today. Our next regular briefing will be on Tuesday, May 27th. Thank you.