COVID-19 is a novel virus that emerged in China in late 2019 and began spreading to the United States earlier this year. With the underwhelming response by the federal government, the virus quickly spread across the country, necessitating action by the CDC and state & local departments of public health to slow the spread of the virus.
Here in Pennsylvania, due to quick action by the Governor and Secretary of Health in Pennsylvania, locally we have been able to flatten the curve in most parts of the state, and mitigate the spread of the virus, the number of individuals who are sick and require hospitalization, and the number of fatalities. However, the significant and long-lasting effects on our economy have only begun.
This pandemic has highlighted the need for strong leaders who can take decisive action and communicate the appropriate and necessary steps the general public must take. Unfortunately, the action our current state House has offered falls short. They are focused on creating a burdensome and partisan review process that stymies the ability of experts to act; and they are moving to reopen businesses against the advice of public health officials, risking the lives of every Pennsylvanian. I believe our legislature in Harrisburg can act, and here is my plan to address this crisis, in three parts:
- Immediate relief for frontline workers to benefit all workers during the pandemic and after
- Prioritizing the health and safety of our residents while moving to a fair economy
- Ensuring preparedness for the next global crisis
I. Immediate relief for frontline workers to benefit all workers during the pandemic and after
- Define frontline and essential workers in the broadest way possible and ensure that employers treat these workers with respect and care for their safety. Essential workers should include, at minimum: First responders – fire/police, EMS, 911 dispatchers; Healthcare workers – nurses, doctors, med techs, pharmacists, janitorial and housekeeping staff; Food industry workers – restaurants and grocery stores back up the supply chain to food manufacturers and farmers; Warehouse workers; Delivery services – gig economy workers like Grubhub, Instacart, and similar services, Amazon drivers, USPS, UPS, FedEx; Cleaning services – whether business or residential; Sanitation workers; Manufacturing of essential goods; and child care for these industry sectors.
- For frontline workers whose job requires interacting with confirmed COVID cases, such as healthcare and first responders:
- Ensure access to the highest level of PPE available
- Prioritize these workers for COVID-19 testing
- Provide mental health services
- Provide our essential workers everything possible to mitigate risks and remove fear of sickness and loss of income, including:
- Guarantee of appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
- Attendance policies that support care for themself and their family members
- Permitting the most generous combinations of paid and unpaid leave, ensuring job protections for individuals quarantined or who must care for children
- Access to child care whose staff are supported with appropriate health & safety procedures
- Require open businesses to meet or exceed state and federal cleaning standards
- Paid handwashing breaks and time to change/sanitize as needed based on job
- Limiting individuals at job sites and allowing for as much physical distancing as possible through staggered shifts, breaks, and trainings
- Clear procedures for when an employee is diagnosed with COVID-19: contact tracing on the job site and quarantining other employees (with paid leave)
- Provide job protection for essential workers who are quarantined or caring for children or sick family members. Employers should not be permitted to retaliate when employees take leave during public health emergencies.
- Recognize that unionization of physicians and other healthcare workers is essential to ensure that patients and healthcare workers are the priority of healthcare administrators – not profits for the few at the top. We must make it easier to form a union to ensure all workers are protected and have a voice at the bargaining table.
II. Prioritizing the health and safety of our residents while moving to a fair economy
There are a number of policies that should have been in effect prior to this Spring’s COVID-19 crisis to protect and support working people. Our current situation has put a spotlight on the needs of working people, those who are most essential, and those who create true value in our economy.
- Safe shopping – Too many aged or medically vulnerable feel fearful of shopping for essential supplies such as food and medicine. The state can regulate the number of individuals permitted in a store to ensure social distancing is possible and establish hours for seniors and high-risk shoppers to attend. The state can also provide recommended cleaning practices and frequencies to ensure the safety of workers and the public.
- Healthcare – Lack of testing and treatment risks lives not just of individuals but endangers the health of entire communities. We need testing to be available to more individuals who want it, including testing for antibodies as that becomes available. We should require that all health insurers operating in Pennsylvania are fully covering the costs of testing and treatment for those who are sick with COVID-19. Further, testing for the uninsured should be available at no cost as many individuals are in limbo with their health insurance due to job changes or job loss.
- Paid leave – legislation like mandated sick leave requiring most employers to provide paid sick time to their employees is a must. Forcing employees to take unpaid leave for illness is an awful idea in the best of times; in our current crisis this situation is deadly. Furthermore, we must recognize that individuals may need to care for a sick family member or dependent, and become quarantined as a result. In the short term, we need to expand the length of permitted leave, whether unpaid through FMLA or in a proposal for paid leave. Finally, all workers should have job protections during this crisis and the state should require that employers reinstate workers returning from leave.
- Child care – this critical industry offers an essential service that allows families the ability to work. However, prior to COVID-19 there was a shortage of quality child care in Pennsylvania. Now over one-third of child care providers in Pennsylvania feel that they will be unable to reopen from a closure lasting longer than two weeks. When our economy does reopen, working families will need quality child care programs to be able to return to work themselves. Therefore, the state must ensure the financial stability of quality child care programs and their ability to maintain quality staff and operations.
III. Ensuring preparedness for our next crisis or global catastrophe
It is absolutely critical that we have elected leaders who believe in science and trust the experts – for today’s pandemic, future pandemics, and the next global catastrophe which scientists have been ringing alarm bells on for years – our changing climate.
- Public Health in Pennsylvania – Some of the early spread of COVID-19 in Southeastern PA was the inability of local governments to do contact tracing without a local department of public health. Ensuring that public health infrastructure exists at the local level is essential not just in a pandemic but in providing a range of health services which benefit the public.
- Broadband internet infrastructure – over 600,000 people in Pennsylvania do not have access to high-speed internet. One of the more challenging aspects of the current stay at home order is ensuring that information is available to everyone regardless of their location. Lack of internet connectivity increases social isolation. As homes and schools have moved to remote work or distance learning, a lack of connectivity means there are individuals who are left out or left behind because of a lack of basic technology infrastructure. Access to broadband internet also means access to telemedicine, which is particularly useful in continuing medical care while physically distancing during a pandemic. We need to substantially expand access to broadband internet services. In the short term, the state can require telecom companies to make mobile internet hot spots available free of charge. In the long term, we must invest in building out broadband infrastructure as it will not only create jobs and put people to work, but also ensure that all parts of the state have access to information, learning, and the modern economy.
- Taking bold action to stop climate change – even as we are in the midst of this pandemic, our climate scientists are already drawing comparisons between our current situation and some of the anticipated effects of climate change. The consequences of not addressing climate change will mean more global scale catastrophes including natural disasters and severe storms that overwhelm our emergency response systems, mass migrations, major disruptions to our food supply chains, and increasing outbreaks of infectious diseases. However, there are solutions and being proactive about fossil fuel emissions and public investments can change the course of our future.