By David Loomis
INDIANA – State health department officials recorded Indiana County’s first fatality from the COVID-19 pandemic at noon on Wednesday, April 15. But social-media followers of county Commissioner Sherene Hess got the news from her a day earlier.
For breaking an apparently unwritten embargo imposed by someone somewhere in some chain of command, Hess earned the reproach of county Coroner Jerry Overman Jr.
“It is so unprofessional,” Mr. Overman told The Indiana Gazette. “Now I have another set of problems to deal with.”
Citizens might empathize with the interruption of the coroner’s business as usual. But they probably appreciate the commissioner’s keenness to know more about COVID-19’s march through the county.
Ms. Hess initially responded to the kerfuffle by taking down her posting and explaining its provenance – an email from the county’s emergency-management director.
“When I realized it had not been reported to the Department of Health, I took the post down,” Hess said. “I’m waiting for all the right protocols to happen. I had thought it was public knowledge.”
LOCAL PUBLIC KNOWLEDGE about the pandemic can be as mysterious as the virus’s mutations. The county’s March 11 pandemic-emergency plan calls public information “critical” during the three or four waves of contagion forecast to sweep through the county every four to six weeks.
“Timely and accurate information to the general public … will be paramount,” the plan declares. “Communications will be prepared by local subject experts.”
However, words and deeds differ. In the absence of a local authority designated to conduct regular public briefings (think various proactive governors and mayors recently), county emergency-management director Thomas A. “Tom” Stutzman has distinguished himself as an unofficial local subject expert. And Ms. Hess was right to cite him as a knowledgeable, reliable and responsive source.
Moreover, she did so for the right reason.
“Transparency at the local level is just as important as it is at the national and state levels,” Ms. Hess wrote in an April 16 email elaboration. “My expectation is that with accurate information at the local level, along with the guidance and recommendations from the PA Dept of Health and the US Centers for Disease Control, citizens will take meaningful steps to protect themselves and others from this very contagious virus.”
And she acted at the right time.
“We don’t have hundreds of cases or dozens of deaths at this point,” Ms. Hess continued. “Regardless, now is the time to take action. It remains a serious concern here because we do have many places where people congregate; we have a population that skews elderly and one with underlying conditions that increase the risk of death as an outcome.“
HOW TRUE. As she wrote, it was becoming clear that the county’s more vulnerable citizens – residents of nursing homes and long-term-care facilities — are at high risk. The state health department confirmed the county’s first COVID-19 death and identified the victim as a resident of a long-term-care facility. Eleven more residents were found infected at two such county facilities.
By week’s end, the county’s death toll had quadrupled, according to the state health department. All four were residents of two of the county’s nursing homes and long-term-care facilities. The facilities are not named.
Statewide, residents of long-term care facilities have accounted for about half of Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 deaths. More than 80,000 Pennsylvanians live in more than 700 nursing homes. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania nursing homes are largely left to regulate themselves.
MR. OVERMAN did not respond to an April 16 phone message. But the latest local information about the pandemic might suggest to him that he work with Ms. Hess and other leaders in the local fight to supply timely, accurate and coherent reporting to citizens about the contagion’s first wave.
And for the subsequent waves forecast to follow, the troubling developments at elder-care facilities should suggest another item to add to the to-do list of needed reforms that the pandemic is exposing to local elected representatives and their constituents.
David Loomis, Ph.D., emeritus professor of journalism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is editor of The HawkEye.
The HawkEye invites comments on this and other issues of community interest. Email email@example.com or click on the “contact us” drop-down menu, above.