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Jeff Guebara gets his hair cut by Roman Naumenko at Uptown Barbershop Friday, May 8, 2020, in Phoenix. Hair salons and barbershops across Arizona began reopening Friday after being closed for more than a month by order of the governor (AP Photo/Matt York) Jeff Guebara gets his hair cut by Roman Naumenko at Uptown Barbershop Friday, May 8, 2020, in Phoenix. Hair salons and barbershops across Arizona began reopening Friday after being closed for more than a month by order of the governor (AP Photo/Matt York)

Jeff Guebara gets his hair cut by Roman Naumenko at Uptown Barbershop Friday, May 8, 2020, in Phoenix. Hair salons and barbershops across Arizona began reopening Friday after being closed for more than a month by order of the governor (AP Photo/Matt York)

By Jessica Calefati May 11, 2020

If Your Time is short

  • By May 15, more than half of Pennsylvania’s counties will have lifted restrictions that kept businesses shuttered and residents stuck at home since the coronavirus swept through the state in early March. 
     
  • Pennsylvania’s data on coronavirus deaths is less reliable than other states, raising questions about residents have enough information to keep themselves and their families safe and whether the government is making the right call on which places to reopen first. 
     
  • Unlike other states, Pennsylvania has so far refused to release the names of nursing homes and food-processing plants with clusters of coronavirus cases, two settings where the virus can spread easily among workers and be brought back to the surrounding community.

By May 15, more than half of Pennsylvania’s counties will have lifted restrictions that kept businesses shuttered and residents stuck at home since the coronavirus swept through the state in early March.

People in those 37 counties, including Allegheny, Indiana, and Westmoreland, will once again be allowed to gather in small groups and patronize some businesses, although gyms, nail salons, and dine-in restaurants are still off-limits.

The newfound freedoms raise important questions given that the virus hasn’t been vanquished yet.

Do Pennsylvanians venturing out of their homes for the first time in weeks know enough about where the invisible virus may still be lurking to keep themselves and their families safe? And is the government making the right call on which places to reopen first? PolitiFact Pennsylvania We looked at different types of data released by the state Health Department to find out.

Every day, the department updates the state’s official tally of coronavirus cases and the number of deaths caused by the virus. But in Philadelphia, the state’s most populous county, the true number of deaths is uncertain. Figures reported locally and by the state have been out of sync for weeks now.

As Spotlight PA reported, over a one-week period, Philadelphia’s own Health Department recorded a high and rising number of deaths caused by the virus, while the state Health Department’s count for the city remained stuck at a much lower number.

Whether an area’s number of deaths per day is still rising and how fast is central to many peoples’ thinking about being in public, and imprecise data on deaths could lead to overconfidence about an area’s safety.

Philadelphia and the suburban counties that surround it must continue following Gov. Tom Wolf’s stay-at-home order until June at the earliest, so there’s still time to sort out the discrepancy. But it remains unclear when or how state and local officials will reconcile the differences in their data.

Another data point residents might review to determine how comfortable they feel returning to public life is whether there are any coronavirus hotspots in their area.

Unlike other states, Pennsylvania has so far refused to release the names of nursing homes and food-processing plants with clusters of coronavirus cases, two settings where the virus can spread easily among workers and be brought back to the surrounding community.

But city records obtained exclusively by The Inquirer show just how much damage the virus has done in Philadelphia’s long-term care facilities.

The disease tore through almost all of them, infecting 1,800 seniors. As of late last month, 374 nursing home residents had died of the virus, accounting for more than half of the city’s COVID-19 deaths.

Had officials not inadvertently made the data available online, people who live near these facilities, which are located in neighborhoods across the city, would never have known about the remote but potential danger posed by the workers who enter and exit daily.

A report released last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shed new light on how the virus has impacted the state’s meat processors. Across Pennsylvania, 22 meat- and poultry-processing plants employed workers sickened by the coronavirus, the report says. The state with the next highest number of affected plants, Georgia, has almost half as many affected facilities.

Still, the state Health Department won’t tell the public where those facilities are.

Public health officials in other states have been more transparent. Knowing how easily the virus can spread along a production line where workers stand shoulder-to-shoulder, officials in Georgia, Iowa and South Dakota have released not only the names of food-processing plants impacted by the virus but also the number of sickened workers.

Pennsylvanians who live near the plants or call workers from this industry their neighbors are still in the dark.

Recent polling shows that large majorities of Americans remain resistant to reopening the economy, fearing the impact the move may have on human life. The more information people have about deaths caused by the virus and the locations of hot spots to avoid, the more confident they’ll feel leaving their homes.

Pennsylvania’s data on coronavirus deaths has been unreliable or incomplete and the Health Department’s decision to keep secret the details of outbreaks at nursing homes and food-processing facilities is stirring public outrage. The state has more to do to arm citizens with the information they need to navigate life after the worst of the pandemic has subsided.

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