Editorial: No journalistic or public health benefit to Sec. Levine comments

5 min read1,512 views and 1,493 shares Posted June 20, 2020

Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine doubled down on the framing of the pandemic in political terms on Friday, June 19, in a move that LebTown believes will be detrimental to journalistic and public health outcomes

“Lebanon County’s partisan, politically driven decision to ignore public health experts and reopen prematurely is having severe consequences for the health and safety of county residents,” said Dr. Levine.

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“Case counts have escalated and the county is not yet ready to be reopened. Lebanon County has hindered its progress by reopening too early. Because of this irresponsible decision, Lebanon County residents are at greater risk of contracting COVID-19.”

LebTown takes several issues with Levine’s statements, and believes her embrace of the crisis as a series of political volleys is a missed opportunity to demonstrate that she is pursuing a data-driven, outcome-focused approach to the public health crisis.

Since early in the pandemic, LebTown has advocated for better data from the state government. We have argued that deficiencies in the communications and reporting strategy carried out by Governor Tom Wolf’s administration could ultimately have deadly consequences.

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March 27: Governor Wolf must release waiver rubric & list of waived businesses

April 2: Lack of transparency by state government remains an urgent issue

May 8: Inconsistent, opaque messaging by Wolf admin undermines journalism, increases public health risk

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LebTown believes the risk of the virus is real. When the Lebanon County Commissioners voted to transition the county to ‘yellow status’, LebTown reported on which medical experts had assented to the move. On Friday, LebTown explored whether local elected leaders believe that Lebanon Countians should follow CDC guidelines to wear a cloth face covering when in public. This journalism aligns with our mission of providing fact-based, independent, and non-partisan news.

The politicization of the pandemic has been a recurring theme in our reporting and it is not a one-party issue. Elected officials on both sides of the aisle have ratcheted up the rhetoric; threats of a higher minimum wage and misstatements about recalling employees on one hand and longshot legislation for nuclear options and impeachment on the other.

Pandemic politicization has made it much more difficult to produce a news report that can be trusted by the Lebanon County community as a whole. A growing sense of public skepticism and cynicism festers on Facebook and feeds into discussions on our posts, with little of the collaborative or unified spirit that seemed possible those first few weeks in March.

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Today, Lebanon County’s cases are rising. Levine’s statement is accurate at face value. However, it is missing entirely of context. And pinning the increase solely on the decision to reopen “prematurely” is simply not a statement that can be made based on science or data. No doubt, reopening will lead to more cases, but asserting cause and effect between the elected official’s actions and the rising case counts shifts Levine from a medical role to a political one.

As we have pointed out in our tracker, the spike in the new case rate appears driven by greatly increased test volume, not an increase in the positive percentage. A significant portion of the tests in the last two weeks came from “a data dump from a large commercial lab,” according to a DOH spokesperson. It is not clear when those tests were actually conducted.

Furthermore, it seems all but certain that a large percentage of the tests in the last two weeks were conducted in longterm care facilities as part of a statewide universal testing initiative. LebTown is not able to tell on a given day what percentage of new overall cases are associated with nursing homes. Testing figures for nursing homes show up in the overall case counts before they are reported as longterm care facility cases and negative test results are not reported separately for longterm care facilities.

The state has also refused to release any data that would show what percentage of cases might be linked to Bell & Evans, the county’s largest private employer and the location of a coronavirus cluster, according to a recent report by the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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The county doesn’t have any better visibility into outbreaks than we do as members of the public. In April the state presented counties with an offer for specific addresses (but not names) of COVID-19 patients to be shared with 911 centers, but Lebanon County declined to enter that agreement, citing concerns shared by the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania that the terms would expose the county to undue liability. Lancaster Newspapers reported that the Lancaster County Commissioners shared this view as well.

Other issues with the data were documented in an article this week by Spotlight PA, a deeply-researched piece which came to the conclusion that:

The state health department has repeatedly failed to safeguard the public’s trust in its data. While there is no evidence of intentional manipulation, the state’s blunders have created openings for confusion.

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Clearly the virus remains a major threat to physical and financial wellbeing across the state and nation at large. We will be dealing with COVID-19 at least through the rest of the year, and likely well into 2021. It is imperative that the Department of Health get more serious about its data enterprise. Why hasn’t this happened already? Perhaps there is a funding issue preventing a better data strategy to be implemented; could be there’s a territorial fight in progress. Regardless of the underlying cause, we believe Levine must understand that high-quality data is the bedrock of a successful and sustainable epidemiological response.

Levine’s comments – while likely cathartic – were counter-productive to what LebTown views as a shared goal of providing better information to the public and helping Lebanon County navigate this ongoing public health crisis.

Rather than taking pot shots at Lebanon County elected officials, Levine should be attempting to understand their concerns and push the conversation into a problem-solving space. How different might the situation be today if two months ago the Department of Health had petitioned the Governor and legislature for a few million dollars in emergency funding to develop a best-in-class data team, or brainstormed better ways to work with county officials than the unreliable and unilateral “collaboration” patterns that seem to be in place today.

To do this now will require immediate actions from Levine, Gov. Wolf, and the very elected officials as those called out in Friday’s statement. In their response to Levine, Lebanon County legislators anted up and said they would ignore the governor and “treat this edict with the same respect that he has treated all of us, absolutely none.” LebTown views these comments as a further hindrance to mobilizing the state’s resources against the ongoing peril that is COVID-19 and believes that all possible efforts must be taken to deescalate the situation and put a pause on political brinksmanship.

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LebTown urges Harrisburg to provide us with better information so we can understand the full and emerging story of COVID-19 and share it with our readers in Lebanon County. Focusing on the data, and truly improving the quality and transparency of the state’s coronavirus reporting, is the single best thing Pennsylvania’s governmental leaders can do right now to support a fact-based and non-partisan response to the pandemic.

Full Disclosure: The campaign of Dave Arnold was an advertiser on LebTown during a previous election cycle. The campaign of Frank Ryan is a current advertiser on LebTown. LebTown does not make editorial decisions based on advertising relationships and advertisers do not receive special editorial treatment. Learn more about advertising with LebTown here.

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