By Rick Hiduk
(Exclusive to EndlessMtnLifestyles.com readers)
In response to mounting criticism on social media in Wyoming County to a sense of “radio silence” from county leadership over the COVID-19 pandemic, Endless Mountains Lifestyles reached out today to Wyoming County Commissioner chairman Rick Wilbur to obtain an overview of what is being done at the county level and where people should be looking for information.
Wilbur is fully aware of the fervor being expressed on Facebook and other social platforms and laments that it is currently “out of control.” While there have been few official releases from the courthouse, Wilbur has been posting information from other sources that he hopes is helpful to the people who need it most. But the responses during this highly emotional time tend to be so politically charged, that he has been reticent to post more often.
The county has activated a Safety Task Force that includes Sheriff Bob Roberts, EMA director Gene Dziak, the commissioners, and members of the county’s judicial offices. In addition to teleconferences as needed with all members participating, Wilbur noted that its members are in communication with each other several times per day.
Dziak and his staff have been working with PEMA to get personal protective equipment (PPE) such as gloves and masks to all first responders and pharmacy workers. “Hospitals are running short too, and Gene is doing a great job with PEMA to get the supplies to fill those shortfalls,” Wilbur reported. “He has supplied every ambulance and fire company with PPEs, and we have more as backup.”
The commissioners themselves are alternating their physical presence at the courthouse, with one of them going into the offices each morning and communicating with the other two via phone throughout the day. On Thursday morning alone, Wilbur related, he had already been on the phone twice with each commissioner and the solicitor, as well as one time each with the chief clerk and Dziak.
“We are always available to each other by phone, but otherwise we are working from home,” he said.
The courthouse is all but closed to the public until further notice which has made routine business normally conducted across a counter or desk all but impossible. “Basically, we are affected across the board,” Wilbur remarked. “Everything can’t be done online.”
In addition to the inability of staff to be able to process passports, marriage and gun licenses, legal searches, or taxes, for example, an already backlogged court system cannot handle any cases except in emergency situations like protection from abuse orders or child custody placements.
Another reason that Wilbur cited for a lack of information from the county seat is the inaccessibility of numbers that he wants from the state to balance out the statistics provided daily by Gov. Tom Wolf and PA secretary of health Rachel Levine.
“We have requested that they start publishing information other than deaths and live cases,” Wilbur stated. “How many tests have been done? How many were negative? How many are pending? How many people have recovered? I think those are important numbers too and would provide some hope. And we could use some hope right now.”
One of Wilbur’s biggest concerns is the ambivalence of some county residents to the seriousness of the crisis and a sense by many that Wyoming County has somehow magically dodged the bullet. Not until today had the state map indicated one confirmed case in the county, after which Dziak issued a press release noting that there are actually two individuals who have tested positive.
“We all knew that it was inevitable. There was no way to escape it,” said Wilbur, who is certain that the numbers will rise. “People are driving back and forth to Lackawanna and Luzerne counties to work.”
Wilbur suggested that many people in the county may have already had it or have it and will never be counted because they will stay home and self-medicate. “First, it has symptoms that are very similar to the flu or the common cold. Many people are getting this who don’t require medical treatment,” he stated. “As a rural county, we’re pretty self-sufficient. It’s not in our mind-set to run to the hospital every time we have a chest cold.”
The fact that some residents are calling for mass testing is simply impractical at this time, though Wilbur is hopeful that a new five-minute testing procedure will get FDA approval and speed up the process and the number of people who can be tested. It is his understanding that the current tests can be done in Wyoming County, but there are no labs to process them, resulting in an eight-day to 10-day delay.
“To me, that is not acceptable,” Wilbur remarked. “But that has nothing to do with the local people doing the tests. And the labs just can’t keep up with the backlog.” Also, many people who have been exposed to the corona virus will never show symptoms. “There’s no reason to have the test unless they become very ill. The Department of Health wants you to to stay home and self medicate.” He is unaware of anybody currently hospitalized in Wyoming County with COVID-19.
With hopes of slowing the spread of the virus to Wyoming County by people from other counties and states who have cabins or second homes here, Wilbur issued a statement last week requesting that all but essential workers cease their movement in and out of the county. He said today that he still feels that way but understands that local government is powerless to enforce travel restrictions. “You see a lot of out-of-state plates of people who legitimately work here,” Wilbur noted. “You can’t stop that.”
He participated in a conference call with Sen. Bob Casey and commissioners from other rural PA counties who expressed concerns about people from more populated areas going to their cabins to “escape” the virus. “How do you stop a property owner from coming here? We’re strongly suggesting that they don’t,” Wilbur maintained. But few cabins are equipped with large freezers or pantries. “They can’t store enough food for two or three weeks, so they have to go back out to the stores.”
Residents are seeking answers as well about the financial stress on businesses and individuals. The commissioners are communicating daily with U.S. congressman Fred Keller, state Rep. Karen Boback and state Sen. Lisa Baker to get their interpretations of the federal CARES legislation and other stimulus measures. It is unclear yet, for example, whether senior citizens who did not file an income tax report last year will get any assistance. After some back and forth, it now appears that they will, Wilbur suggested, “but that’s not in writing yet, and I’d like to see that.”
The commissioners have had no direct contact with the governor’s office, nor have they received a response to their request for the aforementioned “balancing statistics” from the Department of Health (DOH). Nonetheless, they are checking in with the DOH website (https://www.health.pa.gov/) regularly for updates. “I also watch the governor and the president everyday,” Wilbur remarked.
The chairman’s recommendations echo that coming from the DOH in that people should continue too isolate themselves and contact healthcare providers only if they are sick. “Call your primary care physician first. If you don’t have one, call the number at the DOH website. They will ask you a series of questions and will most likely determine that you don’t need a test. There just aren’t enough of them to go around yet,” said Wilbur. “The last place you should go is the ER.”
The commissioners are working out the logistics for their first virtual meeting since the courthouse closure, which is tentatively scheduled for Tuesday, April 7 at 9 a.m., utilizing Zoom video conferencing at http://zoom.us/J/3415816769. The general public may submit questions in advance of the meeting to chief clerk Bill Gaylord at firstname.lastname@example.org. Further information and instructions will also be posted at www.wycopa.org.
Editor’s note: With a population of just over 27,000 permanent residents, rural Wyoming County, Pennsylvania, is ranked #60 out of 67 counties by population. Despite its proximity to Lackawanna and Luzerne counties with 211,000 and 317,000 residents, respectively, Wyoming County decidedly lacks the urban character of its neighbors to the east and south. But its county seat of Tunkhannock is precisely 26 miles from both Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, and many residents work in the Lackawanna and Wyoming valleys and travel there routinely.