Op-Ed: The Human Cost of Pennsylvania’s Response to COVID-19

As many of us look to “reopen” Pennsylvania after weeks of observing stay-at-home and business closure orders, some have expressed the opinion that we are putting money before human life. That is simply not true.

Recently, as Chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee, I convened a joint hearing with the Senate Community, Economic, and Recreational Development Committee. The purpose of this meeting was to hear from the business community on the impacts Governor Wolf’s business closure order has had on industries across the Commonwealth, and to hear from the Governor’s administration on how they have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly with respect to the business waiver process.

Most of what was discussed during the hearing was in response to concerns expressed to my office over recent weeks.  But Gene Barr, President of the PA Chamber, called attention to the “human cost” of the current closures and unemployment situation, by noting that with every 1% increase in unemployment comes both a 1% increase in suicide and a 3.3% increase in drug overdose deaths.

Every day, Dr. Rachel Levine, Secretary of Health and Pennsylvania’s Physician General, provides an update on COVID-19 cases and deaths. But what is the true number of deaths attributable to COVID-19?  Does that number include those deaths that have been brought on by isolation and depression; by not having access to treatment; by being out of work; by being shut-off in a home with an abuser 24/7; by being too afraid to seek medical treatment for other health conditions during a pandemic?

We may never know. But it is important to call attention to these collateral effects, just as Dr. Levine calls attention to deaths caused directly by the virus. If we are truly “all in this together,” then we need to care about the human toll that the virus, and our response to it, is taking on each of us  – our families, our neighbors, our co-workers, and yes, total strangers.

A regional police department in my district reported a significant escalation in crime this month compared to April 2019, including a 400% increase in aggravated assaults and a 200% rise in both terroristic threats and protection from abuse (PFA) violations. Additionally, suicides are up by 100%, drug overdoses by 275%, and Naloxone use by 300%.

Prior to the pandemic, the opioid crisis was the biggest health concern in the Commonwealth. Governor Wolf signed an opioid disaster declaration in January 2018, which he renewed eight times, most recently in December 2019. That latest declaration expired in March, the same time that he signed the COVID-19 disaster declaration.

However, the opioid crisis has not gone away.  In fact, based on Mr. Barr’s statistics, as well as statistics out of York County, the problem is again escalating after years of hard work by communities across the state to reduce the number of overdose deaths.  York County has seen overdose deaths triple since the start of the pandemic.  In January, there were six opioid deaths, followed by 14 in February, 24 in March, and, at the time of this writing, 17 in April. And that is just one county.

Fortunately, York County has not seen an increase in deaths by suicide during the pandemic. However, that does not diminish the fact that 16 people in the county have taken their own lives so far this year, with 9 of them occurring between March and April.

But we don’t hear any of these death counts in Dr. Levine’s daily updates.

In a follow-up with the PA Chamber after the hearing, it provided calculations they had done using the statistics above plus current unemployment claims.  Based on data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) from 2018, the most recent year available, Pennsylvania had 4,685 overdose deaths and 2,014 suicides that year.

It should be noted that the state’s unemployment rate was 4.7% in February 2020. Since then, our unemployment rate has skyrocketed, by the Chamber’s estimate, to nearly 20%, based on the 1.6 million claims filed since mid-March.  So, Pennsylvania could see a nearly 50% increase in drug overdose deaths, or 2,319 more, and a 14.85% increase in deaths by suicide, or nearly 300 more.

While the administration’s sole focus seems to be on the 1,600 documented COVID-19 deaths, the above projections suggest that stay-at-home orders and business closures may not be the best and only solution to the current situation. We cannot ignore the pandemic within a pandemic.

We are all focused on protecting human life. And while I am concerned about the economy and getting businesses back up and running, reopening Pennsylvania is not simply for the sake of business owners and their livelihoods. It is also to get people back to work so that we can reduce the chance of these dire projections becoming a reality.

Senator Mike Regan represents Pennsylvania’s 31st Senatorial District covering parts of Cumberland and York Counties.

CONTACT: Bruce McLanahan, bmclanahan@pasen.gov