End of the tunnel: state and local lights

Dr. Rachel Levine, Pennsylvania health secretary nominated to serve in the Biden administration. Photo: USA Today

Coronavirus diary: an opinion

By David Loomis

INDIANA – For the past year, poor leadership plagued the nation’s pandemic response from the White House to the county courthouse. Trump talked too much but had no plan;  Indiana County had a plan but talked too little.

Two bright lights of leadership emerged from the darkness of 2020 – one from Harrisburg, the other from Indiana Borough, the county seat.

In Harrisburg, Dr. Rachel Levine, Pennsylvania’s secretary of health, last week was nominated by the Biden administration to serve as assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, largely based on her management of the commonwealth’s pandemic response.

Gov. Tom Wolf added that Dr. Levine led the effort “amid hateful distractions.” The distractions included attacks on her gender identity. If her nomination is approved, Dr. Levine will become the nation’s first openly transgender federal official to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.


State Rep. Jeff Pyle, R-Indiana, Armstrong. Photo: Rep. Pyle’s YouTube website

Right on cue last week, state Rep. Jeff Pyle, a Republican elected in November without opposition to represent part of Indiana County, shared a post on Facebook that mocked Dr. Levine’s appearance. His insensitivity was breathtaking and his apology was lame.

“From this situation I have learned not to poke fun at people different from me and to hold my tongue,” Pyle wrote from the low end of his learning curve amid calls for his resignation and censure. “Be a bigger man.”

President Biden rightly ignored the lilliputian Mr. Pyle and commended the distinguished Dr. Levine.

“Dr. Rachel Levine will bring the steady leadership and essential expertise we need to get people through this pandemic — no matter their zip code, race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability,” Biden said in a Jan. 19 statement.

Of course, Pennsylvania’s Covid-19 data show that the state is far from low-risk compared with other states, although its average number of new cases per day has dropped significantly in the two weeks before Jan. 25. 

Source: Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Click to enlarge.

But Dr. Levine’s Fauci-like focus on science, coupled with her experience dealing with a Republican-controlled legislature, make her a good fit for the Biden administration’s Covid-19 agenda in a Congress primed for a partisan fight.


INDIANA BOROUGH also embraced the science behind the pandemic early on. Biobot Analytics, a Cambridge, Mass., startup, has been analyzing the community’s sewage for the presence of Covid-19 RNA since spring. The community sewershed includes the borough, Indiana University of Pennsylvania and White Township.

Biobot’s pitch is persuasive. As the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported, wastewater surveillance is fast and cost-effective at monitoring viral spread in small and medium-sized communities. It has predictive power to forecast localized trends of infection. And it has potential to detect the mutant variants of the Covid-19 virus that are sweeping the country.

Biobot advises against using wastewater analysis as an exclusive metric of infection. But as a supplement to clinical test results – which in Indiana County have been slow to report and variable to administer – wastewater monitoring can provide nearly real-time measures and meaningful forecasts of the pandemic’s waves. Weekly wastewater reports on the borough’s website have provided meaningful and accessible information in an otherwise information-starved community.


Wastewater Covid-19 concentrations, related measures, ZIP code 15701, Jan. 17 – Jan. 23, 2021

Source: Borough of Indiana, Pa. The vertical axis represents the number of Covid-19 viral copies per liter of sampled wastewater (times 1,000). It does not reflect individual infections. The horizontal axis reflects chronology. Click to enlarge.


The borough’s cost for the surveillance service has dropped. For the last half of 2020, it was $820 per weekly sample. The borough reports that for 2021, the price is $350 for a weekly sample that is a little slower and less detailed. The cost is a tiny fraction of the borough’s $6 million budget.

The modest investment in public health and public information has distinguished the borough among other local authorities and governing bodies that get the valuable information — if they use it — for free.

“This enables us to provide an early warning to members of our community, who may then be able to take action to avoid contracting and spreading the virus,” borough manager C. Michael Foote said. “Knowing whether trends are up or down gives folks one additional piece of information to help them make decisions. For example, if I know infections are increasing, maybe I’ll decide to order take-out from a restaurant rather than eating in, or maybe I’ll be more vigilant about avoiding crowds.”

Peter Broad, president, Indiana Borough Council. Photo: Facebook

Borough Council President Peter Broad concurred.

“We’re at a confluence of events that makes safe practices even more important,” Broad said. “We have virus fatigue, colder weather and an increasing number of cases. At the same time, there was exceptional news recently regarding development of vaccines. If we collectively take a deep breath and do what we need to do to avoid the virus, we can make it through this — together.”


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 doloomis@iup.edu or click on the “contact us” drop-down menu, above.


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1 Response to End of the tunnel: state and local lights

  1. Wanchisn Judy says:

    It is very difficult to get a vaccine in this state. I have worked persistently each day for a week and a half. I am lucky that I can navigate with the computer but my speed for the internet is dismal…. .6 to 2.0..I have called and contacted over 25…maybe more…different hospitals, pharmacies, doctors, etc. The nurse at the Indiana Co. Board of Health was extremely helpful, concerned and sincere… She needs a raise. We just heard on the local news that Pennsylvania is #42 in response to the distribution of the virus as compared to W. Va. who is # 1. Someone who is in charge of this roll-out should possibly contact the governor of W. Va. and ask for a few tips. That is dismal and I can testify to the difficulty, frustration and anxiety of securing an appt. to get the vaccine. Senior Citizens that have no access to the internet are at a huge disadvantage. One 88 year old lady expressed it like this..” I hear the rhetoric about the pecking order of first responders, medical personnel, which is fine, but how is it being implemented? How is the allocation to states being decided — by population or are there other considerations? Who is deciding when I get the shot — my doctor, the druggist, the governor? Is there a plan? I expect inequities and I am concerned because of my vulnerability. Remember, the devil is in the details.” This is not just apparent in Pa. Here is another from an 88 year old in Fla. “The Florida Health Department’s policies and mechanisms regarding COVID-19 vaccinations alienates, marginalizes and discriminates against those individuals who are not computer savvy, cannot place phone calls for hours on end in order to schedule an appointment, or have no means to get to a vaccination site. This includes elderly, the homebound, and those with disabilities. Compounding this is the decision to allow those healthy individuals between the ages of 65 and 75 the same priority as those 75 and older, and allowing nonresidents of Florida to receive vaccines. My elderly mother lives independently and alone in Hillsboro Beach, and she may not be able to be vaccinated because of Florida’s system. I can’t help but wonder if the real plan is to prevent them from getting vaccinated because they have no value. Why are their lives expendable?” Sorry for such a long comment but this needs fixed. Here is hoping that Biden and Congress will do a better job with the distribution of this vaccine.

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