READING, Pa. - The Berks County commissioners on Thursday heard an update on COVID-19, warning the positivity trend is high for the county when compared to the rest of Pennsylvania.

In his weekly update for the commissioners, Brian Gottschall, director of the Berks County Department of Emergency Services, said the state reports Berks as having a close to 5% positivity rate on all testing that gets done.

But Gottschall said that number is somewhat misleading.

"When doing a lot of recurring testing, like we are doing at nursing homes, where the vast majority of the tests are negative, that drives our percentage down," Gottschall said.

When looking at first-time testing being done on people not feeling well, or those exposed to someone with COVID-19, Gottschall said the positivity rate is closer to 10%.

"We have been progressing upward for some time. Especially over the past few days, we have been significantly high (in positivity rates)," Gottschall said. "We want to be attentive to this. We don't want you to believe that there is no cause for concern."

Commissioner Christian Y. Leinbach said the data from contact tracing reveals that the trend for positive cases tends to be among high school and college students.

City resident Christopher Ellis said that with the virus spread being seen in Kutztown, it is only a matter of time before the same thing happens in Reading.

"Condemn Kutztown University for its horrible decision to allow students back on campus," Ellis said. "Use your power of the bully pulpit to tell Kutztown that it has erred and should close down [in-person] instruction."

The commissioners did not address the situation at Kutztown University, but Commissioner Keven S. Barnhardt once again urged residents to cooperate with the contact tracing efforts being undertaken by Co-County Wellness Services.

In another matter, the commissioners voted to approve a resolution to authorize Deborah Olivieri, director for election services, to execute a contract with the Crowne Plaza Reading, Wyomissing, for rental space on election day.

The commissioners said the county will be using the Crowne Plaza to replace the Highlands at Wyomissing as a polling location.

All other precincts in Wyomissing will still cast in-person votes at their usual voting locations.

Barnhardt said that, as of Thursday, the county had received 54,354 applications for mail-in ballots.

Barnhardt also said he has been contacted by citizens who would like to collect ballots on election day and deliver them to election services.

"Picking up ballots from other people is against the law," Barnhardt warned. "That's called ballot harvesting and is not appropriate."

Barnhardt stressed that if a person delivers a ballot in person to election services or to the drop box in the county services building, they may carry only their own ballot.

Also Thursday, the commissioners heard from city resident Becky Ellis, who is also a Reading school board member and the wife of Christopher Ellis. She lamented the fact that the county is no longer leasing the closed Kaercher Creek Park in Windsor Township, near Hamburg, from the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.

"Would it be possible for the county commissioners to hold a town hall for the community members affected by the non-renewal of the lease?" Ellis asked. "The frustrations of the community are palpable, as it appears that blame is cast from one party to the next, and what is needed is a public forum."

The county did not renew a lease with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission because of lead contamination problems from a former battery site in Hamburg.

County solicitor Christine M Sadler explained the county did spend a lot of time and effort trying to work out an agreement.

"The reason why the county couldn't continue was because of a lack of indemnification in the lease agreement," Sadler said. "We needed the Fish and Boat Commission to take responsibility for future cleanup efforts. It boils down to the potential exposure to the county is too great to go forward with future use."

Barnhardt said he hated to see the county and the commission part ways.

"We fought like the dickens, but it just wasn't going to happen," Barnhardt added.

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