By David Loomis
INDIANA – The county’s pandemic response plan adopted last month states on Page 13 that external communication is a “critical” issue during the three or four waves of viral infection projected to wash over the community in four- to six-week intervals.
“Timely and accurate information to the general public and other external stakeholders (e.g., business and industry) will be paramount to ensuring the county’s citizens implement preparedness measures,” the plan elaborates on Page 12. “Communications will be prepared by local subject experts.”
Who are these local subject experts? Where have they been? How can citizens interact with them?
The local office of the Pennsylvania Department of Health is the lead agency for official information about the COVID-19 pandemic. Alas, the local office (acronym: DOH) is staffed only part-time. A recording refers callers to headquarters in Harrisburg. Good luck getting a human to pick up the phone there. (They have been busy.)
Indiana Regional Medical Center has provided few details, although the devil of this pandemic is in the data. (IRMC CEO Steve Wolfe did take time last week to announce his hospital’s diminished financial health, a condition widely shared in rural Pennsylvania and beyond.)
County commissioners conducted a business-as-usual meeting last week, although the Republican majority took time to embrace the asserted rights of gun owners. (In fairness, commissioners also took steps to improve the county’s lamentable broadband service.)
ONE LOCAL SUBJECT expert would have to be Thomas A. “Tom” Stutzman, the county’s emergency management director. On Good Friday, April 10, he responded to a week-old phone message and apologized. He had been busy.
Question: Is he the go-to person for information about the local response to the global pandemic?
Answer: No, the state health department is.
Would Stutzman answer questions? Yes.
— A key measure of community preparedness is the percentage of community hospital beds that are occupied. Indiana Regional Medical Center is not the region’s only facility, but it is a “core” facility. IRMC’s occupancy rate was hovering around 30 percent, slightly below the statewide occupancy rate. It will be time to worry when the occupancy rate hits 70-80 percent.
— DOH projected that last week would be Pennsylvania’s peak week for infections. But the week after Easter now looks more like it. Indiana County’s COVID-19 cases, as of Good Friday, was well below what the community is likely to see during this first wave.
— The undercount is due in part to misunderstanding – or misuse – by hospitals, health-care providers and public-health agencies of federal privacy law. The law prohibits release of an individual’s medical records. It does not prohibit release of aggregated numbers of cases.
— Local planners are discussing alternate-care arrangements to isolate patients who might overflow the hospital. Renting a floor in a local hotel or residence halls at Indiana University of Pennsylvania have been discussed. Similar plans have been reported in Pittsburgh, which is eyeing a convention center and empty universities.
— Staffing is a problem among some health-care workers. Five Citizens Ambulance workers went on home isolation following exposure.
— Personal protection equipment? The county has distributed 10,000 N95 face masks and 12,000 pairs of gloves. “But we don’t have everything that we need,” Stutzman said. Face shields and disposable isolation gowns are unavailable. Ventilators? “We’ve had no requests for them,” he said. (A website has since posted detailed hospital inventories, including IRMC’s.)
— Is Indiana County doing any contact tracing in an effort to reach people who may have been exposed to the virus? “I have no information on that,” Stutzman said.
ON FRIDAY, 16 days after IRMC announced the county’s first COVID-19 case (an announcement made nine days after the patient went into quarantine), Stutzman predicted an impending increase in the case count.
“Oh, yes, definitely,” he said. “There’s a whole bunch out there.”
By Saturday, the county’s number of COVID-19 cases nearly doubled to 40.
David Loomis, Ph.D., emeritus professor of journalism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is editor of The HawkEye.
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