April 29, 2020
I've been wanting to write about masks during TOMFOOLERY 2020 for a while now, but just didn't have any time to sit down and do it until now. [Note: I am no longer referring to this mess as "the COVID crisis." Henceforth, I will be calling it TOMFOOLERY 2020, for obvious and fitting reasons.]
On April 3, when Tom Wolf first recommended that everyone wear masks, I wasn't all too bothered by it. Despite being one of the Governor's biggest critics throughout TOMFOOLERY 2020, I thought it was one the more common sense things he did. After all, if it keeps someone who has COVID-19 but is asymptomatic from spreading the virus to someone who does not have it, that seems reasonable to me. It's the equivalent of a smoker who is considerate of others enough to step outside when he or she needs a cigarette.
I even had a little fun with it in a previous blog entry, using a mask to try to send a message to Wolf regarding his infuriating lack of transparency with the business waiver list. By the way Governor, I am still demanding that you PUBLISH THE WAIVER LIST.
But on April 3rd just after the mask recommendation was first announced, I learned that the Wolf Administration provided the General Assembly with a number of masks produced by prison labor in the State Correctional system. For those who don't know, there is a whole industry in our state prison system that manufactures clothing and other items for use within the correctional system. They even named it Big House brand. They switched over to make masks instead, to serve the needs of TOMFOOLERY 2020.
Immediately, a couple red flags popped up in my head. Being that prison labor is only one step away from slave labor, I believed any masks they produced should go to the most vulnerable sectors of Pennsylvania's population, or to the indigent and the homeless. And of course, I imagined the headline that would appear if the media got wind of it: "LAWMAKERS USE PRISON LABOR TO PROTECT THEMSELVES." (Have I told you how awful most of the media coverage is these days? Maybe I'll write another blog entry about that sometime. Ugh.)
At any rate, the red flags launched me into action. I dropped a post on my personal Facebook page in search of some privately-owned Pennsylvania firm that might be able to supply the General Assembly with masks instead of using masks made by prison labor. The post generated a lot of leads and tips for others who were seeking to make masks at home, and I did hear privately from a childhood friend with a nephew who works for a company that was making masks.
I arranged to obtain a case of those masks over that weekend, and made a special trip to the capitol on Sunday, April 5th to deliver them so they would be on hand first thing when the General Assembly started showing up for work on April 6, our first day back in session after the mask recommendation. It was my understanding that arrangements were also made for the General Assembly to purchase more masks as needed from that same company.
Eventually, a news report was written about the masks, and the headline was almost as bad as I imagined. But the report portrayed the prison masks for the General Assembly issue in a manner that made it seem as if there was a "he said/she said" disagreement between the Wolf Administration and the office of Senate Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati. Wolf's team said the GA requested the masks, while Scarnati's team said the Governor's team offered them. It was my understanding that Wolf initiated the offer as well.
What the reporter failed to mention in his article was that he had some evidence that the Wolf Administration put itself first in line for any excess prison labor masks after enough were produced to serve the corrections system itself. What follows is the backstory on how I know that.
In between April 3rd and April 6th, I received another request for cloth masks through the church I attend, to serve the needs of the nursing/assisted living homes it sponsors and maintains. I reached out through my legislative staff to the Department of Corrections to inquire about a) whether they had enough masks for all inmates, b) if they planned to keep churning more masks out, and c) if they would make them available for purchase or donation to non-profits.
The response I received from Corrections stated that they did in fact have enough for the state correctional system, and that they were fulfilling an order for the Governor's office on April 6th. The subsequent round of production would be offered to county jails, Department of Health supervised facilities, and DMVA Soldiers and Sailors Homes, etc.
Notice how the reporter in the article about masks for the General Assembly conveniently left this particular information out of his story. He had a copy of those two emails. I know, because I provided them to him. Why did he fail to mention that the Governor put his administration ahead of county inmates, DoH supervised facilities, and nursing facilities for our veterans?
Could it be because it would have tipped the scales of the alleged "he said/she said" argument against what the Governor's people were saying. You'll have to decide that for yourself.
But those last two items on the Department of Corrections' priority list brings us directly to where this mask story needs to land – on the topic of the Wolf Administration's and Department of Health's oversight of close-quarters facilities where the most vulnerable segments of Pennsylvania's population live. The numbers from the Department of Health's own figures tell the story of their performance in that area.
Here are the facts: 1,089 of 1,716 (63.5 percent) of Pennsylvania's total COVID-19 deaths have occurred in "nursing and personal care homes" under the direct statutory oversight of the Department of Health and the Department of Human Services, both of which fall under the purview of Governor Tom Wolf. 8,280 of 43,264 (19.1 percent) of Pennsylvania's total COVID-19 cases have been at 452 distinct facilities in 41 counties.
Department of Health oversight includes:
- Long Term Care Nursing Facility
- Home care
- Home health care
Department of Human Services oversight includes:
- Personal Care Homes
- Assisted Living Residences
Given these figures, should we really believe the Wolf Administration's efforts are best spent trying to remain in command and control over the entire Commonwealth, the vast majority of which is far less vulnerable than the Pennsylvanians who reside in these facilities?
I think not. We need to re-open Pennsylvania now in a safe manner, and send Wolf, Levine, & Co. back to focusing their efforts on caring for our most vulnerable populations instead, as the law requires. It's time to strip away their masks.