By Ron Riley
INDIANA — I am a retired accountant with more than 23 years of experience in health-care finance. I began reviewing Indiana County’s Covid-19 data in early June as we were about to enter the green phase. I wanted to feel comfortable with where we were with new cases before going out much.
My involvement increased over time, moving from mainly collecting data to analyzing data and generating reports. Reporting evolved based on requests for additional information and changes in the situation. I soon realized that there were other local residents interested in Covid information.
People are interested in knowing the status of the coronavirus in the community and want the truth. I could fill that void with the information that I had and began sharing data. My goal has been to keep people informed. We need to be aware of the seriousness to have greater acceptance of mitigation efforts, such as mask-wearing and social-distancing.
Indiana County achieved a low in June with 17 cases. But with lifted restrictions and summer holidays, new cases increased in July and August. The increase continued in September and October as students returned to class, followed by additional new cases in nursing homes and the prison.
New cases spiked in November and December, as expected. Now, in mid-January, we have seen a decline in new cases and a decline in occupied hospital beds. Good signs, certainly. But we can’t be too confident yet that this may continue.
The number of Covid-19 tests also have gone down while positivity rates remain very high. It is likely that most tests are for those with symptoms. Those who are asymptomatic are not being tested. We have known for months that the level of testing was inadequate to identify positive cases necessary for mitigation.
MY FIRST CONTACT with Indiana County’s Covid-19 Recovery Task Force was in October to express concern for the increased cases and lack of testing. Based on the publicity over the formation of the 18-member task force of executives, directors, county commissioners, state legislators and other community leaders, I expected an active functioning group with good leadership.
The group looks good on paper, but it is not good in reality. It may serve the purpose of a public relations tool but not much more. I found little evidence that an active task force exists.
In November, the task force did announce a new website called REACH with a newspaper article praising its features. County Commissioner Robin Gorman was quoted: “[I]t is critical that our residents have the most current information.”
However, when I spoke with Commissioner Gorman, she was very reluctant to share information. The website has become a communitywide public-relations joke. It provides a link to Google and other websites. It is not updated for weeks. And it provides little local information.
In late October and early November I corresponded by email and spoke by phone with Ms. Gorman. We scheduled a Zoom meeting with all three commissioners in early November.
I suggested that an active committee of fewer members would be more effective. Six or eight members, each with a specific responsibility for some segment of the community, should meet on a regular basis — i.e. weekly – as suggested in the county’s emergency plan adopted by county commissioners in early March. One official concern was a lack of funding and staffing to deal with Covid. A colleague and I offered our services at no cost. Our offer was declined. I later asked about minutes of task force meetings and received no response.
In November and December, as cases increased, I contacted Ms. Gorman several times with current data and concerns. I got, at best, rude and incomplete responses. In the meantime deaths and new cases increased significantly.
QUESTIONS have increased, too. For example:
— Where can residents direct their Covid-19 questions specific to Indiana County? A contact person, phone number, or perhaps a Covid Hotline for Indiana County?
— Who is the point of contact for the county’s task force? Who is chairman? Is no one willing to admit to being chairman of the group?
— What is the status of Covid-19 testing? Why has the level of testing been low? Testing has been lower than recommended for successful mitigation, and lower than nearby counties, while the positivity rate continues to climb. We have performed 25,000 fewer tests than Cambria County. When adjusted for population, we are still 10,000 tests fewer. The expectation that IRMC/IUP collaboration would add a capacity for 200 tests per day has not been realized. If testing capacity is sufficient, is there a need for education and other steps to encourage more testing?
INDIANA COUNTY appears to be lacking qualified leadership to deal with a pandemic. There is no leadership, no evident effort to lead the county through difficult times.
I am most disappointed that something as serious as this pandemic is met with such apathy. As vaccines become available, the time for someone to step up to the plate is long overdue.
Ronald Riley, a native of Johnstown, is a retired accountant with 23 years of experience in health-care finance, including 18 years at Lee Hospital in Johnstown, where he was assistant controller. He has lived in Indiana, Pa., for 11 years.