Longstanding Ties to NYC Poconos’ Greatest Asset and Biggest Concern
Monroe County’s first two cases of novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, infection were traced to a Washington state convention attended by two individuals who live in the same household, according to sources at LVHN-Pocono. The third Monroe COVID-positive case was a pediatric patient believed to have been infected by a health care professional in Philadelphia where he was being treated for another condition. While the first acknowledged cases here were not traceable to New York or New Jersey, the close relationship between the Poconos and that area is largely assumed to be associated with the growth of cases in the county. Beginning in about mid-March, officials at LVHN-Pocono “observed a higher risk of COVID . . . cases with a New York City connection,” according to Brian Downs, Public Information Officer for LVHN. By March 19, the connection was so clear the hospital issued an alert, cautioning anyone who had recently been in New York City or in contact with someone who was, needed be alert for COVID symptoms. With an estimated 20,000 Poconos residents commuting daily to New York City, a national epicenter of the virus, the danger to Monroe County was not lost on area health officials and lawmakers. State Senator Mario Scavello, along with area state Representatives Rosemary Brown and Maureen Madden, and many of their constituents, expressed great concern about those commuters spreading the disease here. On March 24, Brown and Scavello made social media posts on their communications with bus officials, urging that they temporarily cease the trips. The following day, Martz announced it would shut down those operations. By that point, non-essential businesses in the City had already been shut down, and non-essential travel in Pennsylvania was also restricted. According to Scavello, Martz officials told him that the Monroe County buses were running less than half full, with only police, medical, and other essential workers making the daily commute. Scavello told The Boro* that he pushed Martz to make the difficult decision because he was concerned that the actual count of Monroe cases was off by as much as 40% because those with New York residences are not included in our counts, pursuant to CDC guidelines. That same weekend, Don Seiple, president of St. Luke’s Monroe Campus, long concerned about the growing COVID crisis in Monroe County, was watching the Saturday COVID-19 press briefing by Pennsylvania’s governor and health secretary. During the briefing, Governor Tom Wolf, when asked about the New York/Poconos connection, appeared to downplay it. “At this point,” the governor said, “we don’t think that this is a big problem.” Rachel Levine, the state Secretary of Health, followed the governor’s statement by saying it was “hard to determine exactly if we have seen any cases that have spread from New York.” That briefing led Seiple to call an unusual Sunday press conference to voice his concerns. “One of the reasons I felt the need to act on Sunday,” Seiple told The Boro* in a telephone interview, was that “too many people were making decisions based on the numbers reported on the Department of Health website.” Those numbers, Seiple believes, show “a direction, not really a true representation of the severity of it in the county.” Seiple said the long ties of the area to New York, through family and work, are one of the “greatest assets” of the Poconos. But that those ties naturally led in this instance to an increasing threat to Monroe County. One of the reasons he believes the official county counts are not representative is that, under the guidelines imposed by the federal government, infected individuals are added to the numbers of their own state and county of residence, not where they are tested or treated. St. Luke’s, Seiple said, was seeing large numbers of New York and New Jersey patients – both COVID and non-COVID related. A second reason Seiple believes the numbers may be misleading is that the “testing pipeline is constrained.” Between the lack of availability of tests, and the long lag between testing and results, it is difficult to have a clear picture of the seriousness of the problem here. According to Seiple. 80% of the St. Luke’s ER patients were COVID-related, and over two-thirds of St Luke’s inpatients are currently COVID-related patients. Both groups include patients not residing in Monroe County. St. Luke’s and LVHN-Pocono each have surge plans in place to address increased demand. Even with adding emergency capacities, resources are limited and, if the rate of infection is not slowed to allow health care providers time to keep up, those resources could be quickly overrun. Area residents, they say, have it in their power to slow the spread by adhering to the stay-at-home rules, leaving only if and when absolutely necessary. The community response to the stay-at-home rules will be one of the major factors in the actual outcome, emphasized Seiple. “Much of the spread of COVID-19,” Seiple noted, “is related to family gatherings.” He urged that residents not have family gatherings during the upcoming religious holidays. Meals should be limited to those living in the household. While Seiple is confident “that we have plans in place to care for the patients” expected to require treatment, “the community has a part to play in this. If people continue to act as though this is not real, that is isn’t here in the area, they will overwhelm health care facilities. They have a responsibility in this public health emergency to do their part.” “Do your part” is a frequent refrain from health care providers, the governor, and the secretary of health. They assure Pennsylvanians that they can avoid exceeding health care capacities if they accept a personal responsibility to avoid unwarily infecting others by staying home unless absolutely necessary and, when it is necessary to leave home, to wear a cloth mask.