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.
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.
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
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.”
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.
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