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Picking a winner
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Mask opt-out bill for students clears Senate committee

A bill that would allow parents in Pennsylvania to exempt their children from wearing a mask at school cleared a state Senate committee on Tuesday as Republican lawmakers started making good on their pledge to counter the governor’s statewide mask mandate.

The legislation would hand the ultimate decision on masking at school to parents and guardians, allowing them to overrule any face-covering mandate imposed by the state Department of Health, a local health department or a school board.

The Senate Education Committee approved the bill on a party-line vote. It requires passage by the full Senate and the House before going to Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, whose office said he opposes the bill.

GOP leaders had promised to mount a legislative response to Wolf’s statewide mask mandate for schools, which requires students, staff and visitors at K-12 schools and child care facilities to wear masks while indoors, regardless of vaccination status.

Wolf has said a universal, statewide order was necessary after most Pennsylvania school districts did not impose their own mask mandates and the delta variant of the coronavirus caused a statewide surge in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

Some school boards and anti-mask parents and students have vehemently opposed the order, saying without scientific evidence that masks inhibit breathing and cause other problems and that it should remain a parental decision. There is strong evidence that masking children in schools can reduce COVID-19 transmission.

“My office has been overwhelmed with calls and emails from parents so upset with the masking mandates from the Wolf administration and from our own school districts,” the bill’s co-sponsor, state Sen. Judy Ward, R-Blair, said in an Education Committee meeting.

The original legislation only applied to mask mandates imposed by state and local health authorities, but was expanded Tuesday to include masking orders from a school board. The bill would also prohibit schools from keeping unmasked students away from other students or excluding them from any school-sponsored activities.

Wolf’s office lambasted the effort.

“The bill supporters’ efforts would better serve their constituents and the commonwealth as a whole by focusing on increasing the vaccination rates within their legislative districts instead of working on this unnecessary legislation,” said Wolf’s spokesperson, Lyndsay Kensinger. “We need Republicans to stop spending their time undermining public health and instead encourage people to get vaccinated.”

The governor’s office released data on Monday showing that Republicans represent nearly all of the least-vaccinated legislative districts in Pennsylvania.

In the state House, meanwhile, GOP leaders got behind an effort Tuesday to give tuition money to parents who disagree with a school district’s COVID-19 mitigation measure. But the legislation fell short of the votes required for passage, with nearly 20 Republicans defecting amid questions about how much the program would cost and whether the grants were taxable for federal purposes.

Red Cross facing blood, platelet shortage
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The American Red Cross is facing emergency blood and platelet shortages, calling on everyone who’s able to donate.

Officials said the blood inventory is the lowest it’s been at this time of year since 2015, with less than a day’s supply of certain blood types in recent weeks. The supply of Type O-positive and Type O-negative blood, which are the most needed types by hospitals, dropped to less than a half-day supply at times over the last month and is well below the ideal five-day supply.

“Fall is typically a time when the blood supply rebounds as donors are more available to give than during the busy summer months, but this year has presented a unique and serious challenge,” said Dr. Pampee Young, the chief medical officer for the Red Cross. “While it’s clear the pandemic continues to weigh heavily on our minds, the Red Cross asks the public to remember donating blood and platelets is essential to the many patients that rely on lifesaving transfusions every day.”

The nonprofit humanitarian organization announced Monday that it must collect 10,000 additional blood products each week over the next month for the blood supply to recover and meet hospital and patient needs.

Donors of all blood types – especially Type O – and platelet donors are urged to make an appointment to give now and in the weeks ahead to overcome the current shortage.

Vitalant, the primary blood supplier for a number of health systems including the Washington Health System and Washington Health System Greene, as well as all UPMC Hospitals and the entire Allegheny Health Network, is facing similar issues.

“It’s not an emergency shortage, but there is an ongoing critical need of Type O blood, both O-positive and O-negative, and platelets,” said Kristen Lane, manager of communications for the nonprofit organization. “Hospitals are in need of donors, but we have not declared an emergency.”

Officials linked the sharp drop in blood donor turnout to a delay of giving amid a return to the workplace and in-person learning, as well as the need for blood due to the recent surge in COVID-19 cases across the country due to the delta variant.

The American Red Cross reported that when COVID cases spiked in August, blood donor participation decreased about 10%, but distributions to hospitals have remained strong, significantly outpacing donations in recent weeks.

Lane said there are a number of factors that have contributed to the shortage of donations, but COVID-19 is “a big part of it.”

She also cited the decline in locations that collected local blood donations.

“They shut down during COVID, so we no longer have those opportunities,” Lane said.

Lane added that there are upcoming blood drives scheduled, as well as 10 blood donation centers throughout Western Pennsylvania that are always available.

Donors are asked to schedule an appointment before arriving to give blood or platelets by using the Red Cross Blood Donor App, visiting RedCrossBlood.org or calling 1-800-RED-CROSS (1-800-733-2767).

Locally, several blood drives are scheduled:

Washington County Red Cross

Scenery Hill: Oct. 1, 2 to 6 p.m., Wonsettler Physical Therapy & Specialized Health, 100 Wonsettler Road

California: Oct. 6, 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., California University of Pennsylvania, 250 University Ave.


Washington: Every second and fourth Wednesday from 12:30 to 6 p.m., and every first and third Saturday from 8:45 a.m. to 2 p.m., Wilfred R. Cameron Wellness Center, 240 Wellness Way.

Washington: Oct. 11, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., Tanger Outlets, 2200 Tanger Boulevard

Washington: Oct. 22, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., Washington County Courthouse, 100 W. Beau St.

Fayette County

Belle Vernon: Oct. 12, 1 to 6 p.m., Belle Vernon Volunteer Fire Company, 10 Main St.

Uniontown: Oct. 13, 1:30 to 7 p.m., Asbury United Methodist Church, 20 Dunbar St.

Connellsville: Oct. 15, 12 to 5:30 p.m., Highlands Hospital, 401 East Murphy Ave.

Greene County Vitalant

Waynesburg: Nov. 2, 1 to 5:30 p.m., American Legion Post James Farrell Post 330, 678 E. High St.

Carmichaels: Dec. 27, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Carmichaels Fire Hall, 420 W. George St.

Staff writer Paul Paterra contributed to this story.