Jun. 25, 2020

Undoubtedly, COVID-19 brought challenges many of us never predicted. As the virus spread all over the world, it didn’t spare Americans. Before we knew it, our days were punctuated by daily Department of Health press conferences noting the Commonwealth’s case and death counts.

As of June 25, Pennsylvania had 83,770 cases and 6,557 deaths. All 67 counties in the state have had positive cases.

While all ages can test positive, older Pennsylvanians are more susceptible, especially when they have comorbidities such as uncontrolled hypertension, diabetes and heart disease. In fact, more than 87% of COVID-19 deaths in the Commonwealth are in people aged 65 and older.

People who live in congregate settings, like nursing homes, personal care homes or state centers, are also at a heightened risk because of the ease of spread. The Office of Developmental Programs reported 68 deaths from COVID-19 or related causes, in addition to 776 infected staff members as of May 5.

Some facilities – 34, in fact – became so inundated with the virus and positive cases that Pennsylvania National Guard Members were directed to assist onsite.

There is overwhelming evidence speaking to the concerns we need to have for older Pennsylvanians and anyone who lives in a congregate setting. The needs of people living in such facilities are being well protected in at least four locations in the Commonwealth.

Our four state centers that provide care for individuals with intellectual and physical disabilities have demonstrated their excellence during the pandemic. At Polk, White Haven, Ebensburg and Selinsgrove state centers, not one resident has tested positive for COVID-19. Not one.

With the virus running rampant throughout so many other facilities, this is an incredible achievement that truly speaks to the level of care residents receive at these facilities.

This is exactly the care we want them to continue to receive, which is why we are working together to strategically position a vote in both chambers on Senate Bill 906 to ensure an override of the governor’s veto.

The legislation, which received support from the General Assembly but was vetoed by Gov. Tom Wolf earlier in the year, would have prevented the closure of any state center for at least five years following the bill’s passage. Before closure would be authorized, a comprehensive evaluation of the centers and a sensible plan for closure would have to be created and approved by a majority of a task force.

The bill acknowledges that people have diverse needs that are best met by offering them diverse care options, including the care provided by state centers.

If we can convince enough of our colleagues to support the bill, we could cast a vote to override the governor’s veto. Since the veto override requires a two-thirds majority in both chambers, there is work to be done. The final vote in the Senate was 28-21, with the House voting 139-55.

A significant number of elected officials would have to change their votes and support the state centers for this effort to be successful. While that represents a challenge, the exceptional men and women who work at the state centers have certainly helped us to make the case as they have weathered the threat of the virus better than most everyone else, including the state’s own Department of Health.

As the Department of Health struggles to protect the elderly who live in homes across the state, it simply doesn’t make sense to close the doors of four critical facilities that have provided such exemplary care. It, as COVID-19 has shown us, has the potential to be dangerous on yet another level than what we have already predicted.

For that reason, we continue to work on behalf of the residents of these facilities to ensure they receive the best care available.

By Rep. Lee James (R-Venango/Butler)
Rep. Gerald Mullery (D-Luzerne)
Rep. Tarah Toohil (R-Luzerne)
Sen. Michele Brooks (R-Erie/Crawford/Mercer/Warren)
Sen. Scott Hutchinson (R-Butler/Clarion/Forest/Venango/Warren)
Sen. John Yudichak (R-Carbon/Luzerne)

Representative Lee James
64th Legislative District
Pennsylvania House of Representatives

Media Contact: Alison Evans
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