Country Meadows honored for lifesaving COVID-19 prevention efforts 

 A Country Meadows staffer uses an electrostatic disinfection gun to properly sanitize a resident room at Country Meadows’ Community Health Support Center. PHOTO/COURTESY COUNTRY MEADOWS 
A Country Meadows staffer uses an electrostatic disinfection gun to properly sanitize a resident room at Country Meadows’ Community Health Support Center. PHOTO/COURTESY COUNTRY MEADOWS  –

 The COVID-19 pandemic shutdown was hard on everyone, but those in elder care were hit particularly hard as they had to continue operations while caring for a particularly vulnerable population. 

One Pennsylvania senior care giver, Country Meadows Retirement Communities, which has nine locations in Central Pennsylvania, the Lehigh Valley and Maryland, was recently honored for the innovative way it worked to protect not only its own residents, but seniors from other communities and helped to save lives. 

Country Meadows has received the 2022 Best Practices Award from the Pennsylvania Assisted Living Association for the organization’s creation of a Community Health Support Center at its Mechanicsburg campus during the COVID pandemic.  

The dedicated center took in seniors from locations such as Allentown, Bethlehem, Wyomissing and Forks Township who tested COVID-positive and provided a place for those individuals to recover in a safe space with specially trained staff prior to returning home. 

Meredith Mills, president and CEO of Country Meadows said the staff in their communities knew something needed to be done to care for the ailing seniors, while protecting others from contracting the virus. 

“We knew there had to be an environment to keep those infected separate,” Mills said. “We decided to create a dedicated building where we could move patients from other facilities to be cared for by specially trained staff.” 

She said the Mechanicsburg location had the advantage that it had a separate space that could be blocked off by a wall they had constructed to isolate it. 

“It was completely closed off from everything else. It was completely standalone with its own entrance, exits, laundry, supplies and offices,” she explained. 

The center also employed telehealth whenever possible to limit the number of caregivers onsite and lessen transmission risk. 

Other precautions included the use of electrostatic disinfection of common areas and installing a bipolar ionization system for the HVAC system. 

While the original plan was to care for the communities’ own residents, the effort grew.  

“It quickly became clear that the need for a safe place for people to recover from COVID-19 prior to returning home went well beyond Country Meadows’ needs,” said Mills. “We opened the center to seniors from other personal care facilities as well as community members to help people make a safe transition home. The center established Country Meadows as a valuable resource with other senior living providers as well as hospital partners.” 

The dedicated space wasn’t the only thing Country Meadows was honored for. 

Once Country Meadows successfully launched the center, staff were able to add another service, offering monoclonal antibodies (mAb) infusion.  

The mAb treatment was created to reduce severity of symptoms in those infected by the COVID-19 virus.  

It works by imitating natural defenses instead of waiting for the body to mount its own response, attaching to and entering human cells. 

Mills said she knows of no other senior care facilities that were able to offer the infusions onsite. 

 She credited partnerships with Seniority Health and Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center for helping make the life-saving infusions possible  

“The people who received the monoclonal antibodies were much less likely to die from the virus than those who didn’t,” said Mills. “The treatment was not widely available to the general public due to the difficulty in setting up the infusion process. Thanks to our partnerships, we were able to provide this lifesaving resource that other facilities could not provide.” 

A state grant through Penn State Health also helped Country Meadows provide the specialized care. 

 The center remained open for approximately one year through summer of 2021 and served 186 individuals. 

 PALA’s Best Practices award recognizes Personal Care and Assisted Living communities who create innovative programs or unique approaches to provide the best services possible to its residents, co-workers, guests as well as the local community. 

Economy adds 528,000 jobs in July, smashing expectations

The U.S. labor market performed well beyond expectations last month, adding 528,000 jobs and dropping the unemployment rate to 3.5%.

That’s the lowest unemployment has been since the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020. The report from the Labor Department also showed that all the jobs lost in the coronavirus recession have been restored.

July’s jobs number, which defied recession fears and rampant inflation, is the most since February and is up from 398,000 in June.

The Labor Department also revised May and June hiring totals, adding an extra 28,000 jobs in those months. Employment was particularly strong last month in the health care industry and at hotels and restaurants.

“Recession – what recession?” Brian Coulton, chief economist at Fitch Ratings, wrote after the numbers came out. “The U.S. economy is creating new jobs at an annual rate of 6 million – that’s three times faster than what we normally see historically in a good year. ‘’

And Eric Merlis, managing director of global markets at Citizens, said in a statement: “This was a surprisingly strong jobs report that shows how robust the U.S. labor market is. The numbers support economic growth and should give the Fed more ammunition for aggressive actions to tame inflation.”

Paula Wolf is a freelance writer

SBA introduces additional deferment on COVID-19 loans 

The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) announced it will be extending deferment on its loan program for small businesses’ recovering from the impacts of COVID-19. 

The deferment extension is effective for all COVID Economic Injury Disaster Loans approved in 2020, 2021 and 2022. The loans now have a total deferment of 30 months from the date that the borrower received the loan. 

Interest will continue to accrue on the loans during the deferment. 

The extended deferment period will provide additional flexibility to small business owners impacted by the pandemic, especially those in hard-hit sectors, the administration wrote in a statement on Tuesday. 

“Though our small business owners continue to power a historic economic recovery under the Biden-Harris Administration, we must continue to do everything in our power to meet our small businesses where they are with resources to ensure they can recover and thrive,” said SBA Administrator Casillas Guzman. “This extended principal and interest deferment will provide financial relief to millions of small business owners – particularly those hardest-hit by the pandemic and related marketplace challenges – so they can continue to pivot, adapt, and grow.” 

Borrowers through the program can make partial or full payments during the deferment period. After the period ends, borrowers will be required to continue making regular principal and interest payments. 

The SBA made a number of changes to the COVID Economic Injury Disaster Loan program in 2021.  

Those changes included lifting the loan cap from $500,000 to $2 million, implementing a deferred payment period, expanding the eligible use of funds and establishing a 30-day exclusivity window. 

Senate bill looks to make cocktails-to-go permanent

A bill introduced in the state Senate last week would permanently allow the sale of cocktails-to-go in Pennsylvania after they were temporarily allowed for sale during the pandemic. 

Senators Daniel Laughlin, R-Erie and John Yudichak, I-Carbon and Luzerne, introduced Senate Bill 1138 last Friday, which would allow taverns, bars and licensed restaurants to permanently sell cocktails-to-go. 

The bill was written by Tom Tyler, president of the Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage and Tavern Association (PLBTA) and could provide a needed boost in revenue for Pennsylvania businesses, according to the PLBTA. 

Gov. Tom Wolf signed a temporary cocktails-to-go bill into law in May 2020 in the midst of the COVID-19 shutdown. The bill allowed businesses with valid R licenses from the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board to sell cocktails-to-go if they lost at least 25% of their revenue because of the pandemic. 

Under the law, bars and restaurants could sell mixed drinks to-go in a sealed container no greater than 64 fluid ounces, including alcohol and mixers in a single transaction. Businesses lost the authority to sell to-go cocktails when Wolf’s pandemic disaster emergency declaration ended last June. 

While cocktails-to-go served as a lifeline during the COVID-19 emergency declaration, it also provided a way for family-owned establishments to expand their product offerings and increase customer convenience,” the PLBTA wrote in a statement on Monday. “Unfortunately, the end of the emergency declaration also meant the end to these products. This was a loss to both our industry and our patrons.” 

SB 1138 would help restaurants and bars maintain cash flow and expand their offerings, Laughlin and Yudichak wrote in a memo to Senate members in January.  

The memo goes on to say that 33 states adopted alcohol-to-go programs in the early days of the pandemic. Fifteen of those states have extended approval of those programs and 16 have passed laws to make the programs permanent. 

New York Governor Kathy Hochul just called to make drinks-to-go permanent, and New Jersey passed legislation last year allowing local governments to authorize cocktails to go.,” the senators wrote in the memo. “We need to continue to support our businesses in Pennsylvania with this type of legislation. It will create revenue for businesses that continue to struggle and aid in their recovery.” 

Pennsylvania receives $6.8 million to promote access to unemployment compensation system 

Pennsylvania was awarded $6.8 million in grant funding to help promote fairer access to the state’s unemployment compensation system, Gov. Tom Wolf announced Wednesday. 

The Department of Labor & Industry will use the money to assist underserved populations by hiring more CareerLinks staff; adding iPad technology available to staff and claimants; and hiring staff to eliminate the backlog of pending Pandemic Unemployment Assistance appeals for the population targeted by the grant. 

The goal is to increase public awareness so more people apply for unemployment compensation; improve service delivery so claimants receive their first benefits in a timely manner; and develop a better understanding of the equity challenges. 

Funding comes from the American Rescue Plan Act through the U.S. Department of Labor. 

“Particularly during the pandemic, unemployment compensation became a lifeline for Pennsylvanians, but it’s critical that all Pennsylvanians who need it have access,” the governor said in a release. 

“I’m grateful that this funding emphasizes efforts to ensure equitable access to the UC system and that it will support our Department of Labor & Industry’s ongoing efforts to ensure that our UC system is accessible and secure.” 

Pennsylvania, Oregon, Virginia and the District of Columbia were the first applicants awarded a total of $20.5 million during this first funding round. 

State COVID-19 grant program supported 5,860 hospitality businesses

Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 Hospitality Industry Relief Program (CHIRP) provided funding for 5,860 restaurants and hospitality businesses in 2021.

Gov. Tom Wolf announced on Monday that $145 million in state funding has been distributed to businesses across the state through CHIRP.

The $145 million grant program aimed at helping an industry hard hit by closures and reduced capacity over the course of the pandemic. The state secured the funds in March and has since delivered funds to businesses in $5,000 increments with a maximum of $50,000.

Funding was made available in all 67 Pennsylvania counties through designated community economic development organizations starting March 15.

“We developed the CHIRP program to provide immediate relief to the commonwealth’s restaurants and hospitality businesses recovering from the pandemic,” said Wolf. “These businesses and their employees made sacrifices for their communities during one of the most unprecedented times we have ever lived through. It was a major priority for my administration to offer quick assistance through trusted, local partners that truly understood the needs of their area’s businesses.”

Geisinger employees sue over COVID-19 testing 

More than 70 Geisinger Health System employees filed a class-action suit against Danville-based Geisinger Medical Center and its affiliated hospitals and clinics, claiming its COVID-19 testing requirements for employees exempt from getting the vaccine force them to choose between their religion and their jobs.

Geisinger issued a vaccine mandate for all its employees in August. It require employees seeking a religious or medical exemption to do so by Sept. 10.

In a suit filed in U.S. Middle District Court Monday, the employees claim Geisinger did not warned them that by applying for a religious exemption, they would be required to be tested for the virus twice a week beginning Nov. 9, or face dismissal. They are asking the court for an injunction to halt the requirement so they can keep their jobs as the case moves forward.

Geisinger officials were not immediately available for comment. In a statement to PennLive, Geisinger said that its mandatory vaccine policy has already led to a 50% decline in the number of Geisinger employees testing positive and those out on quarantine.

“As a private employer, our mandatory vaccine policy and the process associated with it complies with the law, and similar policies have been upheld in state and federal courts,” the system wrote in its statement.

According to Geisinger’s mandate, employees exempt from the vaccine were required to be tested for COVID-19 on Nov. 9, 11 and 16. After that, tests are required twice a week. Failure to comply would result in dismissal.

The suit maintains that Geisinger is enforcing the mandate regardless of the religious views of its employees, calling the mandate a violation of their first amendment right to free exercise of religion.

The mandate effects all Geisinger employees, regardless of if they work in medical facilities or work from home. Geisinger’s rulemaking also has no support from any official mandate from the federal or state government, according to the suit.

The employees claim that Geisinger never told them that, despite the exemption, they would have to tested for COVID twice a week, wear a mask and be quarantined for longer periods of time than vaccinated coworkers. The suit says the PCR and Antigen tests required by Geisinger contain ethylene oxide, a carcinogen, which the plaintiffs must place inside their body through a nasal swab.

The suit accuses Geisinger of religious discrimination, civil rights conspiracy, violation of the equal protection clause, retaliation and violating the employees’ right to privacy and medical freedom.

The plaintiffs, represented by Williamsport-based attorney Gregory Stapp of Stapp Law, argue that Geisinger is retaliating against them because of their religious beliefs that keep them from getting the vaccine or being tested.

Several federal offices have issued rulemaking on vaccinations in the workplace including the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and The Centers for Medicare and Medicard Services (CMS).

On Nov. 4, OSHA announced a new emergency temporary standard. As part of the standard, covered employers must develop, implement and enforce a mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy, unless they adopt a policy requiring employees to choose between vaccination or undergoing regular testing and wearing a face covering at work.

The standard impacts two-thirds of the country’s private-sector workforce.

CMS issued its own interim final rule on Nov. 8, requiring most Medicare- and Medicaid-certified providers and suppliers to vaccinate staff within 60 days. However, staff who exclusively provide telehealth or telemedicine services outside of the hospital and do not have direct contact with patients or staff, are not part of the rule.


Biden administration announces incoming vaccination requirements for large businesses 

Businesses with over 100 employees will need to either require their workforce to be fully vaccinated or require unvaccinated employees to take weekly COVID-19 tests as part of a new country-wide vaccination effort.

President Biden announced a new “six-pronged” national strategy on Thursday that his administration says will protect the country’s economy from lockdowns and further damage in the wake of the COVID-19 Delta variant.

The action plan, which Biden’s administration refers to as the “Path out of the Pandemic” details how the administration plans to increase testing and require masking, protect the country’s economic recovery, vaccinate the unvaccinated, keep schools open, protect people who are already vaccinated and improve care for those with COVID-19.

As part of the plan’s strategy to vaccinate those who have not yet been vaccinated against the virus, the Biden administration announced that the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is developing a rule that will require employers with over 100 employees to either vaccinate their workers or have those workers produce weekly negative test results.

Through the OSHA requirement, employers will be mandated to provide paid time off for any employee receiving the vaccination.

The requirement could impact over 80 million workers in private sector business, according to the administration. Companies that fail to comply with the rule could face penalties as high as $14,000 per violation, according to a report by the Associated Press.

Tom Baldrige, president and CEO of the Lancaster Chamber, has supported vaccination efforts but said that the most recent announcement are an overreach that will cause disruptions and confusion among businesses.

“Fact is, most businesses of all sizes have been leading the way since the start of the crisis with mitigation efforts that work best for them, their workers and their customers,” said Baldrige. “This one-size-fits-all mandate simply upends that hard work and creates, at least for now, more questions than answers.”

Biden has also signed executive orders to require all federal executive branch workers and contractors that do business with the federal government to be vaccinated.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) is taking action as part of Biden’s plan and will require COVID-19 vaccinations for workers in most health care settings that receive either Medicare or Medicaid reimbursements such as hospitals, home health agencies and ambulatory surgical settings.

Governor Tom Wolf praised Biden on the administration’s most recent efforts to vaccinate against the virus, noting that two-thirds of Pennsylvanians ages 18 and older are fully vaccinated.

“I’m grateful that the Biden Administration is taking strong steps to protect the public,” he said. “I strongly support the efforts at the federal level to prioritize vaccinations, which further support my administration’s efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19 – efforts that are working,” he said in a release.