In the News

Houlahan calls on federal government to take action in wake of dire crisis

West Chester, March 20, 2020

Originally published in The Daily Local

Written by Jen Samuel 

WEST CHESTER — As the Corona crisis strikes the nation, bringing the economy to a standstill, one woman in Congress is advocating for immediate action in support of the people of Pennsylvania.

The key for all Pennsylvanians has to be controlling this pandemic at home, U.S. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, D-6th, of West Chester, told the Daily Local News on Friday. The only way to control and mediate the surge of the coronavirus in Pennsylvania, and across the nation, is to know where it is, in addition to continuing steps underway now to mitigate it from hurting more people.

“The highest priority for all of us has to be controlling this virus,” she said. “If we don't know where it is, and that means we need to have tests, we will never be able to control it effectively and efficiently,” Rep. Houlahan said. “Right now, what we’re doing is ‘controlling with a sledgehammer.’”

As of Friday, there are two sites testing the public for coronavirus, one in Philadelphia and one in Ambler, Montgomery County. No testing sites had been launched yet for the general public in Chester County, as of press time. This is the crux of why the congresswoman wrote her letter to Sec. Azar on Thursday.

On Thursday, Houlahan sent a congressional letter to Secretary Alex Azar of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. She requested that his agency prioritize the expansion of population testing to the entire greater Philadelphia area as well as prioritize the shortage of personal protective equipment and testing supplies for Chester County and the region at large.

The best people can do as a nation and as Philadelphians and Pennsylvanians, Chester Countians and the people of Berks County is to have access to tests, Houlahan told the Daily Local News.

In her letter, the congresswoman told Sec. Azar that Philadelphia is a very large and populous place. “Allowing testing to only happen in some areas doesn’t recognize the enormity of the population that’s here and the interconnection of the people who live within this population area.”

She added, “We need to include all of the counties that surround Philadelphia, inclusive of Philadelphia, in order to have a hope of understanding where we are.”

Last Friday, the president issued a national emergency to combat the Corona crisis. On Thursday, Governor Tom Wolf issued an order for all ‘non-life sustaining’ businesses to close effective 8 p.m. March 19. This decree came with less than 24 hours notice.

On March 18, during a press conference by the Health Department for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Sec. Rachel Levine advised citizens to continue to wash their hands as one key tool to combat Corona.

“Stay home, stay calm and stay safe,” Levine said.

During this unprecedented crisis of epic proportions in Pennsylvania and nationwide, according to a top aide of Houlahan’s office, it is key for manufacturers who already know how to make National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) compliant masks to ramp up production.

There is a shortage locally, regionally and nationwide.

In her letter to HHS, the Pennsylvania congresswoman addressed the urgent need that face masks be swiftly produced for a myriad of emergency responders, from police to nursing home providers.

“The most important people in all of this are the first responders and making sure our first responders have what they need,” Houlahan told the Daily Local News.

She said health care providers in her district are asking for help to obtain Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). “Health care providers of all forms are running out of all forms of PPE. Rather it’s masks or swabs or vials or gowns or — you name it — they are running out and they need relief; they need help.”

The congresswoman’s letter implores the HHS to understand the dynamics of the 6th congressional district’s community and demographics. She said Chester County has the knowledge and the capacity to do the right thing. “We are just missing the basic elements of being able to do that,” she said, in reference to essential medical supply shortages.”

Chester County is one of only a few counties in the commonwealth with its own health department, she noted. “We actually are prepared and capable of doing a lot of the kinds of things that we need to do but we don’t have tests and we don’t have enough PPE,” the congresswoman said.

Houlanhan said even though Chester County has the staff and the training and the wherewithal to be helpful the means to conduct the tests — the supplies — are still missing from the equation.

“That’s the reason why I wrote the letter,” she said.

In the letter, the congresswoman wrote, “There is a dramatic shortage not only of PPE but also of the supplies needed to even perform COVID-19 tests at all. Our area has capacity to expand testing for symptomatic individuals but lacks regular access to sufficient quantities of the sample collection supplies necessary to perform tests. In particular, there is a major shortage of the swabs used in test kits. I am also hearing not only from health care workers on the front lines of this crisis but also from hospitals, health centers, nursing homes and retirement communities in my community that are deeply concerned about the impact that the shortage of masks and gowns will have on their ability to provide routine but essential medical care, thereby keeping patients out of urgent care centers and emergency departments.”

Houlahand told Sec. Azar urged President Donald Trump’s Administration to use all available authorities, including releasing PPE in the Strategic National Stockpile and invoking authorities under Stafford Act and the Defense Production Act as appropriate, and using our trade relationships with other countries to identify PPE production opportunities for the U.S. market.

“I also believe that relevant manufacturers should identify latent manufacturing capabilities in U.S. states and territories that could be reinvigorated to support this emergency situation,” Houlahan said.

She ended her letter to HHS by writing, “Lastly, I hope you will include in your demand projections not only our COVID-19 response frontline facilities but our community health centers and nursing homes that require this equipment for safe, healthy routine operations.”

The congresswoman has been conducting virtual town halls with constituents since the Corona crisis began. One question people often ask is: “How can I help?”

“I’m enormously proud of the people of Chester and Berks (counties) and the people of the Philadelphia area and the people of our country,” Houlahan told the Daily Local News. “I am really hopeful in the sense that we are good people.”

She added, “We’re trying to do the right thing in a very difficult time.”

The congresswoman ended her letter to HHS by writing, “My team and I stand ready to assist in bringing population testing to the wider region around Philadelphia and to help get PPE and COVID-19 testing supplies into the hands of those health care professionals in our communities.”

Law enforcement in Chester County confirmed that emergency responders lack testing materials to screen officers on duty, and in a time of national crisis, for coronavirus.

“Most certainly I have requests being submitted every day this week for the N95 masks and, to a lesser extent, the disposable gowns. Healthcare providers are trying to stay ahead of the curve and request the resources as they see their current supplies being used daily and not really sure when the curve will flatten and the new cases numbers subside,” said Chuck Freese, emergency management coordinator for Southern Chester County, a position of gubernatorial appointment.

“I understand shipments are due to arrive soon and be parceled out based on need,” he said, including patient census and existing supplies of masks and gowns on hand.

Freese oversees emergency management in Southern Chester County including in West Grove and the townships of Penn, Londonderry, Upper Oxford and London Britain. He further coordinates emergency management operations for Avon Grove Regional Emergency Management, Oxford Regional Emergency Management and Octorara Regional Emergency Management. He began working locally in the field in 1988.

“People who are first responders, of one form or another, should certainly have priority,” Houlahan said. “”We are definitely are not there yet in terms of capacity — which is why I wrote the letter.”

Further, “Even if we are capable of doing this, we can’t do it if we don’t have tests,” she said.

“Seek truth,” the congresswoman said. “There’s a lot of miscommunication going on; there’s a lot of people who are opportunistically trying to take advantage of people in their uncertainty. Seek truth.”

Health and Human Services officials did not respond to repeated requests for comments for this story.