By Marley Parish
Already under fire for its school mask mandate, the Wolf administration is now accused of “bullying” students with a letter outlining the consequences of failing to comply with a COVID-related quarantine.
The Department of Health says the document was taken out of context for “political gain.”
Sen. Scott Martin, R-Lancaster, contacted acting state Health Secretary Alison Beam and Education Secretary Noe Ortega on Wednesday after “alarmed” parents reached out about a 2-page letter sent to some close contacts of people who test positive for the coronavirus.
The Health Department and Martin’s office provided copies of the document to the Capital-Star. It’s signed by Beam and notifies the recipient of their potential exposure, instructs them to self-quarantine at home for 14 days, if possible, and outlines possible symptoms.
If a close contact fails to comply, the letter states: “The secretary of health may petition a court to have you confined to an appropriate place chosen by the department to make certain that you are not able to infect the public and to make certain that you receive proper care.”
“You will be kept there until the department determines it can release you from quarantine,” it adds.
The document also says that a close contact could end the quarantine after 10 days if they have no symptoms after a week with a negative antigen test. It also tells individuals to maintain social distancing and monitor symptoms for the entire two-week period.
“The department is concerned about the health and well-being of you, your family, and the general public,” the letter ends, offering a contact number for additional assistance.
Martin, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, has been a vocal critic of the Wolf administration’s COVID-19 response. In his letter, he said the state Health Department “reached a new low” and that “those involved should be held accountable.”
“Bullying children by telling them that the court system and law enforcement may remove them from their homes and place them in another location to be cared for by the government is wildly inappropriate,” Martin wrote. “These intimidating letters are another example of the Wolf administration’s unseemly COVID-19 response.”
Barry Ciccocioppo, a Health Department spokesperson, said the agency doesn’t send the letter routinely.
“The letter in question has been used since the beginning of the pandemic — nearly 20 months — and is sent to close contacts — or their parent [or] guardian with quarantine instructions only in situations where the individual is uncooperative and refuses to quarantine,” he told the Capital-Star, adding that layered mitigation measures mean that most students can continue to learn in the classroom.
More than 41,000 students have tested positive for the coronavirus since Aug. 16, according to state data. In August — after some schools reopened for in-person instruction — Beam enacted a universal statewide mask mandate for K-12 schools and early childcare facilities due to rising case numbers.
Republicans, who hold the majority in the Legislature, criticized the mandate, and have tried to find ways around it. They also advocated for a constitutional amendment that curtailed Gov. Tom Wolf — and future governors — of emergency response powers. GOP lawmakers have also proposed similar changes to the health secretary’s position.
“We need Republicans to stop spending their time undermining public health and fear-mongering, and instead, encourage people to get vaccinated,” Ciccocioppo said.
Marley Parish is a reporter for the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where this story first appeared.