By David Loomis
The nation’s top infectious disease expert is embraced by Americans for paying them the compliment of telling them the blunt truth about the Covid-19 pandemic. His boss, President un-elect Donald Trump is blunt, too. But he lies. Which helps explain why American voters tell pollsters that they trust the knowledgeable expert more than the willful liar.
Distrust of Trump, coupled with his administration’s incompetence and propaganda, have pressed state and local authorities into leadership roles. Northeastern governors, including Pennsylvania’s Tom Wolf, have responded.
Gov. Wolf, for example, issued temporary mitigation orders for the holidays, effective Dec. 12-Jan. 4, as the state averaged 10,000 new Covid-19 infections a day, the average number of deaths hit 200 a day for the first time since the start of the pandemic, hospitals were running critically short of intensive-care-unit beds, and health-care networks were warning about being overwhelmed.
How have local authorities in Indiana County responded to the public-health crisis? A selective review:
Granted, 2020 has been an annus horribilis. Routine is out, reinvention is in, all on the fly, understaffed, overstressed. That’s why Fauci is respected for keeping calm and carrying on, despite his boss’ feckless badgering.
In Indiana County, where the pandemic has surged in recent weeks, county commissioners are uniquely positioned to be a local source of authoritative information and public interaction, as suggested in the pandemic-emergency plan they adopted unanimously in March before the pandemic notched its first local infection.
But commissioners seem to have excelled at forming committees. The panels include an 18-member Indiana County Covid-19 Recovery Task Force, a reincarnated Indiana Collaborative Action Team (I-ACT) and a new group called Resources, Education, Announcements, Communication, Help (REACH), apparently to provide a generic acronym – and to spread accountability.
On social media, some citizens have wondered how the commissioners have managed their public leadership responsibilities. In a recent email interview, county Commissioner Robin Gorman responded.
Contrary to what has been asserted, Ms. Gorman does not chair the REACH group, she wrote. However, she acknowledged distributing some meeting minutes following a couple of early REACH gatherings. And she was uncertain about the group’s future in 2021.
“At this point I don’t know if or when there will be a meeting of REACH,” Ms. Gorman wrote in a Dec. 21 email copied to her two commissioner colleagues.
Meanwhile, representatives of such community institutions as Indiana University of Pennsylvania and Indiana Regional Medical Center would seem to qualify as “local subject experts” for providing “daily briefings,” as spelled out in the county’s emergency pandemic plan. After all, universities have become vectors of viral spread, and the county’s spiking infection rate has been cresting at the hospital. The two institutions’ optimistic predictions about collaborative virus testing have fallen short with little public acknowledgement.
IRMC’s public-information response was on display this week in a posed front-page hospital photo of a nurse described as “among the first health care workers to receive the vaccine” given by an unidentified administrator. No syringe was in sight.
To be sure, the reported arrival of the Pfizer vaccine is good news for Indiana County and, more immediately, for IRMC’s beleaguered nursing and medical staff.
But the hospital that ministers to much of the county’s medical needs also has been hit hard by Covid, as The New York Times has documented for community hospitals in every county nationwide. As of Dec. 21, IRMC had one bed available in its intensive care unit. The Times data show that Indiana County has not been flattening the curve of Covid infection, and its community hospital is on the verge of getting swamped.
DATA CAN TELL PART of the story. Humans can add context. What’s going on there?
This week, a nurse at the hospital described conditions as the curve was spiking. The nurse, who requested anonymity to protect job status, has worked at IRMC for many years and has taught nursing at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
In a Dec. 23 phone interview, the nurse said managers were “providing necessary equipment and plenty of it” and were offering “a small pay raise” beginning in January. Why? “Because people are leaving left and right, and there’s a gazillion Covid patients.”
Still, nurses have no contract. The nurse described labor-management relations as “ugly” and working conditions as “terrible” and “crazy.” Staffing is “minimally adequate,” and, “They’re calling nurses to fill holes every day.” The nurse said IRMC’s management has been doing everything in its power “to get rid of union activists.” Why? “To possibly sell us to someone else, make us look attractive to a buyer.”
With the exception of a couple of departments – some surgeries and ambulatory care — the whole hospital has been given over to Covid care. “I’ve never had 115 patients in the house in my 25 years. It’s definitely full. It’s definitely not pleasant. Everybody’s tired, burned out.”
IRMC did not respond to a Dec. 23 email seeking reaction.
Mask-wearing has become a fighting phrase since some citizens took it to the street last summer. They framed the issue as a matter of personal liberty, not of social responsibility, amid a plague.
This week, defiant anti-maskers received a boost from a local law-enforcement official.
Indiana County Sheriff Robert E. Fyock told The Indiana Gazette on Monday that he lacks authority to enforce the governor’s mandates to mitigate viral spread.
Thus, the sheriff gave support to local business owners who openly have defied the governor’s lawful pandemic-mitigation orders to, among other things, temporarily suspend indoor dining at restaurants during the holidays.
Fyock did urge taking “proper precautions,” including hand-washing, mask-wearing and social-distancing. But the sheriff’s implicit shout-out to scofflaws raises questions.
Is he correct about his authority? The governor, a state Supreme Court ruling and other local law enforcement suggest not.
The governor’s Dec. 10 “limited-time mitigation order” says enforcement is the responsibility of various state agencies and “local law enforcement.”
Do sheriffs enforce laws? In Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Leet, the state Supreme court addressed the question of whether sheriffs and their deputies could do more than serve papers and secure courthouses. Could they, in fact, enforce traffic laws, for example? The court majority essentially said, well, duh:
“Indeed, such powers are so widely known and so universally recognized that it is hardly necessary to cite authority for the proposition. To make the point, how few children would question that the infamous Sheriff of Nottingham had at least the authority to arrest Robin Hood.”
— Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Leet, Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, 537 Pa. 89 (1994)
The assumption here is that the elected sheriff and his deputies have appropriate training to enforce such laws and lawful executive orders. If not, that might raise additional questions about the sheriff’s capacity to uphold his oath of office.
Meanwhile, Indiana borough police Chief Justin Schawl responded to a question about whether his department’s approach to enforcing the governor’s orders differed from the sheriff’s.
“The Indiana Borough Police Department has investigated every report of non-compliance with Governor Wolf and Dr. Levine’s emergency orders since March,” Chief Schawl wrote in a Dec. 22 email. “We have investigated and will continue to investigate violations of the most recent order in effect until January 4. We have not issued any citation specific to a violation of public health and safety orders, yet – but that option remains available to us. Yesterday’s news from Sheriff Fyock and todays reporting done on Crouse’s Café have no bearing on our current or forward moving approaches.”
The sheriff did not respond to a Dec. 22 email seeking a response.
OUR CURRENT SEASON OF darkness predicts a coming dawn.
State and federal relief measures are in the works for small-business owners. Health officials are doing more pleading for public compliance than threatening police enforcement. Vaccines are coming, including the Pfizer and the Moderna.
Epiphany falls on Jan. 6. By then, may local pandemic-fatigued citizens and public-information-challenged authorities experience their own public-policy epiphanies.
David Loomis, Ph.D., emeritus professor of journalism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is editor of The HawkEye.
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