EDITORIAL: Kill the state's 'syphilis law,' GOP

The Dispatch Editorial Board
Governor Tom Wolf and Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine visit WellSpan York Hospital to thank health care workers and hospital staff for their essential role in protecting Pennsylvanians during the COVID-19 pandemic, Tuesday, July 22, 2020
John A. Pavoncello photo

Here's an idea, state lawmakers: Kill the anachronistic 1950s-era law that's crushed the release of information about the coronavirus and eroded public trust.

Gov. Tom Wolf's administration has leaned on the Disease Prevention and Control Law, adopted in 1955 to deal with syphilis, since the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was the initial excuse given when state officials declined to release the statewide testing rates in March. It provided cover for Wolf's lieutenants, who refused to provide information about infection rates in specific municipalities.

It has birthed the very culture of secrecy against which Republican lawmakers have rightly railed.

It's curious that Republicans in the Legislature keen to poke a stick in Wolf's eye haven't targeted the very law behind which Wolf's taken shelter from public scrutiny.

By and large, Pennsylvania's governor has done an admirable job responding to the pandemic. Shuttering businesses and putting hundreds of thousands out of work is never a politically desirable outcome. And his efforts — in line with those taken by other Democratic governors, especially in the Northeast — have clearly saved the lives of Pennsylvanians.

But Wolf's unwillingness to outline how he reached those decisions has bred wild conspiracies, resentment to common-sense mask mandates and undermined his best efforts.  

One must only look at what's happened in states where Republican governors were hamstrung by the White House's desire to wish away the coronavirus as part of that party's out-of -sight, out-of-mind approach.

Yet, in many regards, Wolf has been less transparent than even those governors slavishly succumbing to President Donald Trump's cynical messaging campaign.

Take for instance Iowa's Gov. Kim Reynolds, who has been among the most willing to sacrifice her state's welfare in service to the president and big business.

Outbreaks swept throughout Iowa's meat packing plants, thereby hitting the largely Latino workforce disproportionately hard. Recent reporting by The Associated Press has shown Reynolds' administration under-reported the scale of the outbreaks at a Tyson pork plant by the hundreds and covered for the company's abhorrent treatment of its workers.

Even so, Iowa's public was at least aware that there was an outbreak at Tyson. They just thought there was a couple of hundred positive tests instead of exponentially more.

Wolf, thanks to the syphilis law and the culture it created, has refused to provide his constituents even that much, providing ammunition for conspiracy theorists all the while.

In April, York City Mayor Michael Helfrich, in a moment of apparent frustration, said his city's Latino population was experiencing an outbreak originating at a company outside of city limits. Days later, another news outlet quoted a physician saying there was an outbreak at Plainville Farms turkey processing plant in New Oxford, Adams County.

The connection between those two stories could not be established, as state officials have consistently refused to provide details about local outbreaks, and Helfrich declined further comment. And so, workers and their families were left without information they might have used to protect themselves.

This is but one example of the Wolf administration's approach to the coronavirus, one rooted in the Disease Prevention and Control Law and matured into a policy of obscurity and opacity.

Republican state lawmakers say they want answers and have proven willing to test the governor's veto pen to get them. It would be only reasonable to scuttle the very law that manufactured many of the secrets in the first place.