Recent editorials of statewide and national interest from Pennsylvania’s newspapers:

We’re using a machete to fight the coronavirus, when a scalpel might be better

Harrisburg Patriot News/

May 16

Dr. Asif Ilyas just might be right. We’ve been using a machete to attack the coronavirus to try to wipe it from the face of the earth, but now we need a scalpel.

The director the Rothman Orthopaedic Institute Foundation for Opioid Research & Education, is right about another thing: we need to face some hard truths. Don’t let anyone fool you. We are unlikely to have a vaccine against COVID-19 for at least a year, if then. And many people will not trust any vaccine that is rushed onto the market and that cuts scientific corners.

Thousands of people don’t trust measles vaccines or even flu shots. What’s going to inspire them to take a vaccine that may not have gone through the years of rigorous clinical trials that pneumonia and other vaccines?

It’s sad, but true, we shouldn’t hold out hope for a vaccine by September or even Christmas.

Dr. Ilyas is among a growing number of responsible people, including many of our readers, who realize we can’t hide from the world forever, either. We’ve got to figure out a way to live with this virus, while protecting the most vulnerable in our communities.

It doesn’t mean defying government officials in our state who are offering sound guidance to keep people safe. And it doesn’t mean throwing caution to the wind. It does mean carefully analyzing the medical data, scientifically calculating the risks and coming up with a plan to protect people while allowing the economy to restart.

Now, that’s easier said than done. But the concept is sound.

Too many people have serious medical issues that they’ve put off addressing during this pandemic. Our teeth haven’t been cleaned, we’ve skipped annual check-ups and many people are deathly afraid of stepping into a doctor’s office or hospital.

This means there will be another price to pay for COVID-19, exacerbating those underlying health conditions that make us more vulnerable to the coronavirus.

Before COVID-19 came to Pennsylvania, Dr. Ilyas notes we were seeing a decrease in the number of people dying from opioid addiction. Kathy Strain, with Drug Free Workplace PA, says deaths were roughly about 12 each day. And she says the isolation and anxiety the coronavirus has brought is hurting many people who need stability and human support in recovery.

Strain says her organization has had to adapt to organize regular online support meetings, while encouraging people to stay in contact with those in recovery, even by phone and online chats. People in recovery – and their families – need support.

Dr. Ilyas penned an Op-Ed for PennLive to call attention to what he sees as a recent spike in Opioid deaths, despite the best efforts to people like Strain who have been trying to make sure it doesn’t happen.

Pennsylvania has been losing about 5,400 people each year to opioid deaths before 2019. But last year, Dr, Ilyas says that number fell to 3,811 overdose deaths. This year, the numbers seem to be rising again, and research indicates the cause is COVID-19.

“The Rothman Orthopaedic Institute Foundation for Opioid Research & Education predicts a 10-25 percent rise in Pennsylvania opioid-related deaths for 2020, Dr. Ilyas wrote, “primarily due to social isolation, desperation, financial strain, and lack of access to counseling, medical or surgical care that otherwise limit a susceptible patient’s opioid use and potential abuse.”

The argument is well made that we must find a way to limit the secondary impact COVID-19 has brought to our community. His call for increased testing and tracing has become the rallying cry for those who want to reopen society and protect the most vulnerable from COVID-19.

Without reliable testing and tracing of those infected with the coronavirus, people will still fear getting help to fight the other diseases that can be just as deadly.



After Monday statement, it’s time for Gov. Wolf to unleash Pennsylvania Posse

York Dispatch

May 20

A little clarity is all we’d like.

That’s not too much to ask.

Unfortunately, Gov. Tom Wolf is offering answers that are as clear as mud.

Here’s the question: Are auto racing programs — without fans and abiding by all health safety guidelines — permitted in areas of the state that have advanced to the yellow phase of the state’s COVID-19 mitigation plan?

Seems like a straight-forward query.

Wolf’s responses, however, have been nothing but confusing.

Earlier this month, it appeared that Wolf’s answer was an unqualified “no.”

Selinsgrove Speedway located in Snyder County, about 70 miles north of York, announced plans to hold a sprint-car racing program for the Pennsylvania Posse on its dirt track on Saturday, May 9. That was one day after Snyder County moved into the yellow phase.

Speedway officials vowed to follow state safety guidelines for the no-fan show and said they obtained all the proper local and state clearances, only to be informed just days before the event that the state approval had been rescinded.

Selinsgrove tried to race again the following Saturday, May 16, only to again be denied state approval. Track officials, with some justification, criticized the state for its “heavy-handed approach.”

Wolf, however, seemed to completely change course on Monday, May 18, when asked about the possibility of holding NASCAR races at Pocono Raceway in Monroe County on June 27 and June 28.

“If Monroe County (which is currently in the red phase) goes to yellow before that race happens and NASCAR, in fact, has the competition without spectators in the stands and they follow other guidelines to keep the competitors safe, yeah,” Wolf said.

That immediately begs the question: Why can Pocono hold a NASCAR race without fans under yellow conditions, while Selinsgrove can’t?

There does not seem to be a justifiable answer to that question.

Money issue: Some, however, will likely point to one big reason for Wolf’s differing responses — money.

NASCAR, of course, is a high-profile national series that boasts a television contract worth millions of dollars.

Selinsgrove, meanwhile, is a regional dirt track without any national TV deal.

We’d hate to think that is the reason for Pocono getting the apparent green light to race, while Selinsgrove remains shuttered. Until contrary evidence emerges, however, most folks will justifiably believe that money is at the heart of the issue.

Given Wolf’s statement on Monday, he only has two possible options:

1. He should give all Pennsylvania dirt tracks the permission to immediately open, without fans, once their home counties reach the yellow phase, provided they agree to abide by all health safety restrictions. That would include other tracks on the central Pennsylvania racing circuit such as BAPS (in York County), Lincoln (in Adams County) and Williams Grove (in Cumberland County). Those tracks are located in counties that will move to yellow on Friday, May 22.

2. Or, he should rescind his Monday statement saying that NASCAR can hold its June programs, without fans, at Pocono Raceway if Monroe County reaches the yellow phase.

Allowing Pocono to race under yellow, while denying that same opportunity to the state’s dirt tracks, is not right or fair.

Unleash the Posse: NASCAR, meanwhile, returned to racing action in Darlington, South Carolina, on Sunday. That event appears to have gone off without a hitch, indicating that auto racing can safely resume, without fans, provided all proper safety precautions are taken.

Given the apparent success of the Darlington program, the first option outlined above would seem to be the more reasonable course of action for Wolf.

The rabid race fans in central Pennsylvania have been demanding some dirt-track action for weeks now. They’ve bluntly let the governor know their strong feelings in various manners, but especially on social media.

After Wolf’s statement on Monday, we now agree with those fans’ demands.

It’s time for the governor to unleash the Pennsylvania Posse.



Remember other vaccines

The Scranton Times-Tribune

May 20

Hearts and markets leaped Monday at news that an experimental vaccine against COVID-19 had produced promising results in a test. And in many of the world’s foremost research institutions, intense work continues on more than 100 potential coronavirus vaccines, eight of which are in early trial stages. So there is hope for a breakthrough.

But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Tuesday that the broad stay-at-home protocol to help contain the spread of COVID-19 also has produced a dangerous reduction in vaccinations for other diseases.

The CDC examined Michigan, and found that vaccination rates for children younger than age 2 have fallen precipitously so far in May, and by more than 50% for children under 5 months.

“You are prone to potentially seeing measles outbreaks as communities and jurisdictions in Michigan, and arguably in other parts of the country, open up,” said Angela Shen, a research scientist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and a coauthor of the CDC’s Michigan analysis. Shen said that a public vaccination rate of between 93% and 95% is necessary to keep measles in check.

In September 2019, Samoa experienced a measles outbreak amid low vaccination rates. By Jan. 1, more than 5,700 people, nearly 3% of the nation’s population of 200,874, had contracted the disease. It killed 83 people. All but seven of them were younger than 15, and 61 were 4 or younger.

The Samoan vaccination rate for children had fallen from 74% in 2017 to just 34% in 2019.

In response to the epidemic, the government imposed restrictions far stricter than the COVID-19 lockdown and mandated vaccinations, driving the rate to 90%.

As the society and economy begin to reboot from COVID-19 restrictions, the Wolf administration should prepare a vigorous program, through public health clinics and an awareness campaign, to ensure that parents get their children’s vaccinations up to date.



Jim Kenney’s budget for Philly makes tough cuts. But are they the right ones?

The Philadelphia Inquirer

May 19

There’s nothing like a deadly pandemic to prove an old truth: Man plans, God laughs. That’s especially relevant when considering the city budget currently being discussed and subject to hearings in City Council. In the olden days of pre-coronavirus lockdown in early March, Mayor Jim Kenney’s budget painted a rosy picture of the future, directing new money to schools, pre-K, and other programs.

All that has obviously changed, with a crisis that has decimated budgets — government and household — in two short months. We don’t envy the task of rewriting that earlier version of our city’s story to align with the new reality and don’t underestimate how difficult it is to have to shift the narrative and see the city’s momentum halted.

Kenney’s revised budget seeks to fill a $649 million hole with an increase in parking, property, and wage taxes. In addition to imposing a hiring freeze, Kenney is proposing layoffs of part-time, seasonal, and temp workers, gutting arts and special events, and eliminating the Office of Workforce Development, among other cuts.

Raising taxes should be the last resort in a crisis that has left very few unscathed. Adding more tax burdens on salaries or properties at a time when incomes are plummeting or outright disappearing makes no sense. When the crisis is over, people will need to be encouraged to come back to the city; a hike in parking and nonresident wage taxes does the opposite.

The wage tax hike for nonresidents seems to ignore the fact that the workplace has been altered dramatically — and doubtless permanently. With mid- and high-income people working from homes in the suburbs, many city-based companies are rethinking whether to fully return to expensive city offices. A higher wage tax for their employees could be the deciding factor.

Also, workforce development efforts will be central to rebuilding the city and its economy, so Kenney’s decision to close the office devoted to this is troubling. While the mayor cites a flood of federal relief dollars for small businesses that justifies his eliminating the office, the city will need a planned and organized approach to do help prepare the workforce of the future.

Our worries about the budget predate the pandemic: an increase in spending during the Kenney administration by $1 billion. That was fueled, in part, by an increase in the number of employees, which was coupled inexplicably with higher overtime costs. That giant increase did not result in a reduction in the homicide rate, the poverty rate, or overdose deaths.

The process of debating the budget is underway, with Council holding hearings over the next few weeks.

Also this week, City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart issued an alternative plan that recommended ways to cut spending without raising taxes. Those cuts involve more aggressively reducing overtime and forestalling wage increases, among other steps. As City Council reviews the budget, it will also no doubt offer its own version. Mayor Kenney should keep an open mind and consider all these options. Ultimately, the budget should not just be about surviving this crisis, but ensuring the city and its citizens have a chance to come out of it stronger and healthier.



Freezing tuition: State schools face pandemic challenges

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

May 20

With so much uncertainty over when — and how — college classes will resume this fall, students and parents at least got some help in the planning process when the board overseeing Pennsylvania’s 14 state-owned universities agreed to a tuition freeze for the 2020-21 school year.

Freezing tuition in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic will at least add some small measure of stability for the nearly 96,000 students who attend the state schools and those planning to enroll in the next year or two. The board also agreed to a tentative increase of 1% for the following school year, the first time the State System of Higher Education has set tuition for two years.

Most universities are opting to freeze tuition for the upcoming year because of the financial turmoil brought on by the coronavirus pandemic and the related surge in unemployment with some 36 million Americans now out of work. Officials at the University of Pittsburgh and Penn State University are also considering tuition freezes for the upcoming year.

The financial impact of the COVID-19 crisis has hit universities nationwide, with campuses closed and schools scrambling to develop online teaching plans that may be required for some time. Although the Pennsylvania schools would like to be open for the fall semester, they also realize that may not be possible and are preparing different contingencies that could include extended periods of online learning.

Unfortunately, some students may be reluctant to use online learning and may opt to wait until the crisis passes and schools reopen their campuses. Others may find themselves and their families under financial duress and decide to delay their education for a time.

The state-owned schools are preparing for an overall drop in enrollment, expected to be at least 3.6% but could go as high as 10%. Even with a bargain-priced annual tuition of $7,716, state system administrators know they face serious challenges in keeping all 14 campuses operating profitably in the midst of an anticipated enrollment decline.

The Western Pennsylvania schools in the state system — California, Clarion, Edinboro, Indiana and Slippery Rock — have long been popular destinations for graduating high school students. The tuition freeze for this year and limited increase for the following year will help many to afford a college education in these uncertain times.