Report calls for disability community involvement in solving health disparities

A new report recommending the disability community’s involvement in solving health disparities has been released by the Arc of Pennsylvania. 

Facilitated for the COVID-19 Health Disparities Task Force, the report includes contributions from people with lived experience of a disability, caretakers, and family members of those with a disability, and professionals in support fields. It recommends 10 core solutions for Pennsylvania’s Department of Health, including involving people with disabilities, their families and caregivers in policy making and healthcare decisions. 

“Let’s be clear: This isn’t just a COVID issue,” Sherri Landis, executive director of The Arc of Pennsylvania, said in a statement. “These barriers existed long before COVID. The pandemic just shined a light on them. The solutions report goes far beyond COVID to address disparities that have existed for far too long.” 

COVID-19 health care barriers among people with disabilities, their families, and caregivers were identified in an August 2022 report from the Task Force and The Arc. The report identified the effects the COVID-19 emergency response had on the disability community. 

The Arc convened regional workgroups to ask members of the disability community about solutions to address those barriers in the future. It noted that health decisions for people with disabilities are made without their insight and involvement, despite the community being among the country’s largest groups experiencing health disparities. 

The task force’s latest report, “Recommendations for Addressing COVID-19 Health Disparities Among the Disability Community,” concluded a multi-year effort funded with a grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Health through the CDC’s National Initiative to Address COVID-19 Health Disparities Among Populations at High-Risk and Underserved. 

Contributors to the report included people with lived experience of a disability, caretakers, and family members of those with a disability, and professionals in support fields. Individuals with diverse types of disabilities, including physical, intellectual, developmental, and behavioral, as well as emotional, sensory impairment, and complex medical disabilities, were among the contributors. 

Hundreds of individuals from diverse racial, ethnic, and rural populations participated in the initiative through regional and local interviews, surveys, meetings, and listening tours that served as focus groups to identify the barriers, core solutions, and recommendations. 

The recommended core solutions specific to the Pennsylvania Department of Health were: 

  • Involve people with disabilities, their families, and caregivers in policy making and healthcare decisions. 
  • Reactivate the Governor’s Cabinet and Advisory Committee for People with Disabilities. 
  • Keep helpful policy changes from the COVID-19 pandemic. 
  • Expand community-based healthcare, including telehealth services and mobile clinics. 
  • Include disability representatives in the Office of Health Equity Advisory Committee. 
  • Provide disability-specific training for healthcare professionals. 
  • Designate people with disabilities as a Medically Underserved Populations. 
  • Collect standardized data on the health needs of people with disabilities. 
  • Provide information in multiple languages, easy-to-understand and easy to access formats. 
  • Remove disability as a factor in healthcare decision making during emergencies. 

“The disability community faces complex and nuanced health barriers,” said Landis. “The first step to addressing these issues is for policymakers to listen to individuals with lived experience. Without their insights, health disparities will continue to plague the disability community.”

OSHA still vigilant over workplace COVID-19 safety

The height of the concern over the COVID-19 virus may have passed, but that doesn’t mean employers shouldn’t still be concerned about their obligation to maintain a healthy environment at work. 

Mandates imposed by the Biden administration were later overturned by the court, so now COVID-19 prevention practices are considered recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control versus regulations. 

But COVID-19 and other virus protections in the workplace are still covered under the Occupational Safety & Health Administration’s Genral Duty Clause, and Tom Barnowski, director of corporate and public safety education at Northampton Community College said that should keep employers alert to the situation. 

“Employers can still be cited if an obvious risk is present and they do nothing to prevent it,” said Barnowski. 

That means that employers still need to be wary of basic virus precautions to make sure there aren’t outbreaks of COVID-19 or other contagious viruses at a worksite that could have been prevented with proper precautions. 

He noted that OSHA fines under the General Duty Clause can be up to $14,500 for a single serious violation to more than $145,000 for repeated willful violations. 

But, Barnowski said, it’s not just about the money. 

“OSHA doesn’t want your money. OSHA wants your attention,” he said. 

Like a speeding ticket, those fines are a warning to those who might violate safety rules that there are consequences. 

While there are still specific OSHA regulations with regard to personal protective equipment, reporting and record keeping, the best thing a company’s human resources department can do is stay on top of the latest COVID-19 information from the CDC. 

“Every employer should stay on top of CDC guidelines because it changes all the time,’ he said. “Companies should offer the latest most relevant information. Be aware of COVID-19 because it is still with us and there are always new pharmaceuticals coming onto market to be aware of.” 

He said that while COVID-19 isn’t in the news as much as it was at its peak, OSHA is still taking the virus seriously and has pledged to increase its COVID inspection goal to 10% as the agency works to finalize a permanent coronavirus healthcare standard. 

According to OSHA, they have issued 1,200 coronavirus-related citations to employers and to date assessed current penalties totaling $7.2 million dollars. 

NCC to host training for OSHA COVID-19 compliance

The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) has pledged to increase its COVID inspection goal to 10% as the agency works to finalize a permanent coronavirus healthcare standard. According to OSHA, they have “issued 1,200 coronavirus-related citations to employers and to date assessed current penalties totaling $7.2 million dollars.” 

To assist healthcare workers and employers to remain safe and compliant, Northampton Community College is pleased to provide free webinars for healthcare workers and employers as a result of obtaining a Susan Harwood training grant. The program includes personal protective equipment (PPE), hazard assessment and information about what OSHA’s Mini Respiratory Protection Program (“mini RPP”) is and why it is necessary. Training may also satisfy some of the COVID-19 training requirements required by OSHA. 

The free training will be held virtually over Zoom on October 26 at the following times: 

  • 12 p.m. – 4 p.m.: COVID-19 Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) for Healthcare Employers 
  • 9 a.m. – 11 a.m. or 6:30 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.: COVID-19 Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) for Healthcare Workers 

Emergency Medical Services (EMS) professionals successfully completing a course will be eligible for continuing education hours. 

To register, visit www.northampton.edu/HealthcareETS. 


OraSure cuts ribbon on COVID-19 test manufacturing facility

Local officials gather to cut the ribbon at Opus Way, OraSure Technologies new COVID-19 rabid test manufacturing facility. PHOTO/SUBMITTED –

OraSure Technologies has officially cut the ribbon on Opus Way, its new expanded facility in Bethlehem Township, which was constructed with the help of $109 million from the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) to ramp up production of InteliSwab COVID-19 rapid tests as part of the nation’s pandemic preparedness plan. 

“We have built the capacity to manufacture almost as many tests in a single week as we used to produce in an entire year … and we will continue to ramp production as we bring this new facility fully online,” said Carrie Eglinton Manner, president and CEO of OraSure Technologies. 

She called Opus Way a team effort – both within the organization and through OraSure’s partnerships with the federal and state government.  

“It is because of this collaboration that we are here together today for our official ribbon-cutting ceremony,” she said. 

OraSure was awarded a total of three contracts from the federal government last year to help develop, produce and distribute the COVID-19 test. Those included $205 million for InteliSwab COVID-19 Rapid Test procurement, $109 million for InteliSwab manufacturing capacity build out, and $13.6 million to pursue full FDA 510(k) clearance for InteliSwab. 

“These contracts position OraSure as an important part of the government’s global pandemic response,” said Lisa Nibauer, OraSure’s president of Diagnostics. “The U.S. government’s selection of OraSure’s InteliSwab rapid test for their national pandemic preparedness effort is a great honor.” 

Allentown pharma firm hopes to soon have oral vaccine to market

Kyle Flanigan of U.S. Specialty Formulations, right, poses with Garry Morefield of VaxForm at the Ben Franklin Tech Ventures in Bethlehem. PHOTO/FILE –

With Phase 1 testing now complete and showing positive results, U.S. Specialty Formulations of Allentown is moving forward with the oral COVID-19 vaccine that it is producing. 

The company is working with VaxForm of Bethlehem, to bring a vaccine to market that company leaders believe will be easier to tolerate and more effective than the current injection vaccines on the market. 

Kyle Flanigan, founder, CEO and president of U.S. Specialty Formulations said his company is now looking to attract venture capitalists to help fund Phase 2 and Phase 3 trials, which he will be conducting while attempting to get Emergency Use Authorization from the U.S. government, as well as other governments around the globe. 

“It is in our best interest to make sure other countries have vaccines too, so they don’t bring that disease here,” he said. 

He is looking for between $5 million and $15 million in funding depending on what the regulatory bodies want to see in the next level of testing. 

He said, so far, much of the federal funding for vaccine research has gone to the “Big Five” pharmaceutical companies, like Moderna and Johnson & Johnson. 

That’s leaving smaller developers looking for private funding. 

But what they found in Phase 1, he said, is promising enough that he believes investors will be easy to attract. 

“We’ve already generated the data that a venture capitalist would want to look at,” he said. 

Phase 1 testing, which was conducted in New Zealand because of its relatively isolated population and high vaccine rate, showed the vaccine U.S. Specialty Formulations is developing could be a highly desirable addition to the vaccine options currently available. 

“It’s been really exciting,” Flanigan said. “The vaccine we adapted for COVID-19 seems to perform better than some of the platforms that are already on the market.” 

He said the testing showed his oral vaccine was about 43% more effective for subjects who took it compared to those who took other vaccines on the market. 

Also, the oral vaccine has shown that it fights all three major variants of COVID-19, and Flanigan hopes to show that it can fight all variants of the disease.  

“That’s the Holy Grail in this,” he said. 

The oral vaccine is also showing that it is easier to tolerate than the injectable vaccines currently available on the market. 

With no injection, Flanigan said it may attract those that were avoiding the vaccine to avoid the needle stick. 

He also said it’s showing less general side effects, like muscle soreness. 

One of the biggest benefits, he said, is that the oral vaccine is proving to be extremely shelf stable and can tolerate high heat, which would make it easier to transport, store and deliver to hotter regions around the globe. 

And because it can be taken orally, no health care professional is needed to provide the vaccine, which makes distribution to more remote regions much easier. 

Flanigan said he hopes to receive Emergency Use Authorization to begin distribution of the vaccine while the second and third phase trials are underway. He said the fact that it has been proven to be safe will help his company’s case. 

If things go well, he hopes to have the vaccine to market this fall. 


Pandemic-related tax changes means many haven’t seen returns

It may be more than halfway through 2022, but accountants are steal dealing with the 2021 tax return season thanks to pandemic related changes and backlogs with the Internal Revenue Service. 

Ruthann Woll –

Ruthann Woll, a tax partner and CPA with RKL LLP, said millions of people have still not received their rebate checks and some have not yet filed their return because of some of the reconciliations that needed to be done because of COVD relief stimulus from the federal government. 

“We’re dealing with the reconciliation of the third recovery rebate payment of $1,400, which was made in January of 2022,” she said. 

She said the new advanced child credit also needed to be reconciled on families’ tax returns. 

Stephanie Kane, senior manager in RKL’s tax services group, said the same is true for many businesses. 

Tax incentive programs due to Covid-19, such as PPP forgiveness and ERTC credits, impacted returns again this year. PPP forgiveness was tax free money, while ERTC credits actually increased taxable income for businesses. For that reason, Kane said careful planning is important for businesses filing their tax returns. 

“Certain tax rules changed for 2019 and 2020 were reinstated for 2021,” said Kane. “Excess business loss limitations and interest expense limitations had been lifted to help with cash flow for Covid-19. They are now back in place.” 

Stephanie Kane –

The need to address many of those reconciliations and tax changes caused many to file for deferment, to give them more time to work out the implications. 

Woll said the IRS had 54 million tax returns filed by the original April deadline but expects around 160 million returns to be filed by October of this year. 

Woll said those deferments have added to a number of other problems the IRS has been dealing with in handling the late and more complex returns, the IRS still hasn’t processed about 2 million returns that were expected to be refunds. 

Part of the problem, she said, is that the IRS, like many employers, is dealing with a staffing shortage. 

However, the IRS has been hiring more workers to help deal with the backlog. 

But the IRS is also facing problems with the increase in fraudulent returns that began during the pandemic, a similar problem that the Department of Labor & Industry had with unemployment compensation claims. 

“The last two years it’s been a really crazy environment to help the taxpayers through,” said Woll. 

However, Kane said things should be a little easier heading into the 2022 tax season. 

“Looking to the 2022 tax year a lot of the same things will impact our tax season coming up,” she said. “Practitioners should be working with clients on their quarterly estimates to make sure these items are being accounted for correctly and that there are no surprises for owners on these specific items. We don’t have significant tax overhaul concerns for 2022 at this point. Just making sure we are adjusting and taking into consideration the items we are aware of and their impact on taxes and cash flow.” 

OraSure COVID-19 test to be distributed to nation’s school children

OraSure’s InteliSwab PHOTO/SUBMITTED –

A COVID-19 test from OraSure Technologies Inc. of Bethlehem is going to be used in schools nationwide.

The company, which develops and manufactures point-of-care and home diagnostic testing and sample collection technologies, said that its InteliSwab COVID-19 Rapid Test has been selected by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to be distributed to schools across the country.  

The HHS program provides school districts with at-home COVID-19 test kits to be sent home with students, teachers and staff to help keep the nation’s schools safe as the pandemic continues. Tests provided under this program will be funded as part of OraSure’s procurement contract from the Defense Logistics Agency. 

“Keeping children in school is a top priority and our InteliSwab tests will help make that happen for students across the nation as they complete this school year, move through the summer and start back again in the fall,” said Lisa Nibauer, president of diagnostics for OraSure Technologies. “The InteliSwab® test is simple to use so anyone who uses it can be confident they performed the test correctly. In a pediatric specific study, 95% of parents indicated that swabbing the nose, and reading the results were easy.” 

The overall accuracy of the InteliSwab test including the pediatric population is 93 percent, demonstrating comparable accuracy to that in adults.