Rep. Bob Merski Q&A Addresses Erie County's Move to Green
State Department of Health officials give expert advice
State Rep. Bob Merski, D-Erie, hosted a live Q&A via Facebook and Microsoft Teams to answer community questions about Erie County's transition into the Green Phase. Joining Merski were two officials from the Pennsylvania Department of Health: Raphael Barishansky, deputy secretary for health preparedness and community protection, and Andrew Pickett, director of the bureau of public health preparedness and response.
"Utilize common sense" seemed to be the ongoing theme of Thursday afternoon's virtual event.
"Green is not 'there is no more pandemic,'" Pickett emphasized. "This is still something that is ongoing and certainly we need the public to be aware of it and to take certain precautions as folks go about their everyday lives."
What Erie residents can do
As things to normal, citizens must continue to be diligent about public health actions such as washing hands, wearing masks, and social distancing as these are all things that have helped Pennsylvania flatten the curve, according to Barishansky.
Pickett added that staying home if sick is also a vital action that can be taken to help others.
"We understand that there may be cases of COVID-19 that are occurring in asymptomatic individuals which means there can be spread that we don't know about," Pickett said.
Are casinos allowing patrons to remove their masks to smoke?
As casinos move to open in the Green Phase, smoking in casinos may pose problems to mask-wearing requirements. Barishansky tackles this scenario by saying that it is recommended that casino-goers step outside to smoke and should wash their hands before touching other surfaces after smoking.
Are bars allowed to have bands? Are people allowed to dance? Will they have to wear a mask? What about karaoke?
Merski answered this question with a "no" to the bands and dancing. Pickett said that from a public health perspective singing produces more exhalation compared to having a conversation. Thus, an individual who is sick has a greater ability to spread the virus when singing. And while social distancing on the dance floor may seem challenging, following public health recommendations will ultimately help mitigate the spread of disease.
"We see what has happened in areas that have not done that," Merski said. "You've seen the big parties in Florida and Texas and the bars are jampacked and the cases are skyrocketing. So, the anecdotal evidence is there... The virus does not spread itself, people spread the virus. Don't put yourself in situations where you're going to be an active spreader or a receiver."
What do you tell people who want to travel this summer?
It's up to individuals on whether they should travel. Pickett encourages thinking about the risks and what will be most safe for everyone. He also noted that some states require those entering from another state to quarantine for 14 days.
Are self-serve buffets allowed? Serves can wear masks but what about the highly touched surfaces at restaurants?
Barishansky stated that the Pennsylvania Department of Health has put out guidance for those in the food industry and emphasized practicing common sense with social distancing and mask-wearing. While buffets are prohibited in the Yellow Phase, the Erie County Department of Health has provided guidance that asks restaurant staff to serve patrons at buffets and restaurants to increase the cleaning of high touch items during the Green Phase.
What are precautions people should take going to the pools and Presque Isle State Park?
Thankfully, the large beaches at Presque Isle make it possible to spread out and social distance while enjoying the park. Pickett recognizes that wearing a mask while swimming is difficult so "if you can't use one method of protection (masks), you should double-down on other forms of protection (distancing).
Why are none of the playgrounds open in the City of Erie?
This decision was made by Erie at the local level, according to Merski. Questions can be best answered by contacting the city.
"I think the concern is a lot of kids touching surfaces, sweating on them, and the liability on the city," Merski explained as Erie doesn't have the proper resources to regularly clean and disinfect all city playgrounds.
When are we going to see festivals and concerts again?
Green-Phased counties limit mass gatherings to 250 people. Unfortunately, concerts are high-risk events due to close proximity.
"As the science guides us towards a more definitive answer regarding mass gatherings and what is realistic... we will be modernizing and modifying our guidance as well," Barishansky said.
Everyone is talking about an upcoming spike in the fall, why do we think this will happen?
According to Pickett, fall, winter, and early spring has been nicknamed "cold and flu season." Despite there being no real public health definition to "cold and flu season," viral diseases tend to go up during colder months.
As people go back to school or become complacent, there is more opportunity for spreading COVID-19. Essentially, Pickett said that if a potential second wave were to occur, it would be in the fall.
Barishansky also mentioned the second wave that occurred with the H1N1 virus.
"In April/May we saw the first spike of H1N1 and all of a sudden in October we saw H1N1 come back roaring," he said. "We want to make sure that we as publish health officials are as prepared as possible... both in containment and in our mitigation strategies."
Both Pickett and Barishansky encouraged viewers to seek out further information from reputable sources such as the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. Healthcare facilities and the state Department of Health are also great sources.
"If people go online, you'll be able to find a theory for everything," Barishansky said. "What you want to do when you see something on social media that you want to question, don't fight that feeling. Go get more information."
Whether it's a surgical or cloth mask, it must fit to cover an individual's nose and mouth. Masks should also be washed consistently and kept clean to keep the wearer and others safe.
"Wearing a mask does not impact the oxygenation of your body in any way, shape, or form," Pickett said. "Doctors and healthcare professionals wear these kinds of masks all the time and don't typically have any adverse health effects."
To close, Pickett reminded Erie County that "we are all in this together." Everyone in Pennsylvania will have to do their part to combat the virus.
"Please listen to your public health officials," Barishansky concluded. "We are here to help you. We're here to protect you."
For more information, visit: https://www.health.pa.gov/topics/disease/coronavirus/Pages/Coronavirus.aspx.