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Coronavirus update: Cases confirmed in all 67 Pa. counties; state prisons extend visitation ban

A mounted officer patrols while wearing a face mask to protect against the spread of new coronavirus, in Philadelphia, Wednesday, April 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

A mounted officer patrols while wearing a face mask to protect against the spread of new coronavirus, in Philadelphia, Wednesday, April 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Updated 8:10 p.m.

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As of Thursday morning, there are 18,470 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Pennsylvania, 51,027 in New Jersey, and 1,209 cases in Delaware. Philadelphia has 5,271 cases.

Pennsylvania’s death toll stands at 338, New Jersey’s at 1,700, and Delaware’s at 23. Philadelphia’s death toll is now 104.

Coronavirus confirmed in all 67 Pa. counties

The number of confirmed cases in Pennsylvania has increased by 1,989 over the past 24 hours, and there were 29 new deaths in that time. State Health Secretary Rachel Levine noted every one of the commonwealth’s 67 counties has now detected cases.

“Now more than ever, as we continue to see COVID-19 cases and deaths rise in Pennsylvania, we need Pennsylvanians to take action,” Levine said. “Those actions should be to stay calm, stay home and stay safe.”

The Health Department reports that 87,374 patients have tested negative so far. Of those who have tested positive, the majority — 41% — are between the ages of 25 and 49.

During a Thursday news conference, Levine said Pennsylvania’s case total is flattening, but “it’s not completely flat.”

“We are not out of the woods by any means,” Levine said.

The state now has 18,470 across all 67 counties.

The death toll stands at 338. All of them are adults

As the number of cases rises, state emergency management officials are preparing to open a field hospital in East Stroudsburg in Monroe County.

Pennsylvania remains under a statewide stay-at-home order. Gov. Tom Wolf on Thursday announced that students will not return to class this school year to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Levine said there will be a day when that changes, but that officials have not set any schedule for when that will be, adding that the pieces daily life shut down by the pandemic will have to resume gradually.

“It will not be one grand day. That would be extremely dangerous,” Levine said.

Data suggests Black COVID patients in Philadelphia have higher fatality rates than white COVID patients

Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley had good and bad news for city residents on Thursday.

The good: new COVID-19 cases don’t appear to be rising. Farley said the 494 new cases Philly identified as of Thursday afternoon is similar enough to the 505 they identified Wednesday that he’s relatively confident in saying that growth in new cases “is slowing.”

But, he quickly added, “we absolutely cannot assume it will continue that way — the virus may find new populations here in the city, and we may continue to see rises and falls before we ultimately see a sustained fall.”

He also said the city is still seeing “clusters” of cases in nursing homes and behavioral health facilities, and the city is trying to act proactively in those facilities — ordering staff and residents to wear masks, suspending visits, and discouraging residents from making trips outside the facilities.

As far as bad news goes, Farley said the city has received some broad data on the race of people affected by COVID-19, and it appears the disease is having a worse impact on African Americans.

Of the 104 in Philadelphia deaths so far, Farley said 24 or 25 percent are white, and 38 or 39 percent are African American and 3 percent are of another race. There is still no information on race in 37 percent of cases.

“This does suggest there’s higher rates of mortality in this infection in African Americans than the general population,” Farley confirmed. “This does worry us that like many other health problems, this problem is affecting people who have disadvantages even more.”

He also said while the curve in new cases does not appear to be rising, the curve in deaths still is. The toll increased by 26 between Wednesday and Thursday.

“We expect that that’s going to happen because the death curve is going to lag behind the curve of new infections,” he said.

Pa. schools canceled for the rest of the year

School is officially canceled in Pennsylvania for the rest of the academic year.

Gov. Tom Wolf made the call Thursday morning, saying it “was not an easy decision,” but one made in an effort to settle parents’, students’ and teachers’ uncertainty and “mitigate the spread of the virus during this national crisis.”

The administration noted that it still “strongly” encourages schools to find ways to keep providing students with educational material. The Department of Education, it said, has “secured resources intended to help all schools that want to use them – including those not currently offering online platforms, those requiring additional technology support, and those that may rely on traditional methods, such as paper lessons.”

The closure order applies to virtually all forms of education, including K-12 public schools, private and parochial schools, career and technical schools, and both online and brick and mortar charter schools. The Department of Education’s early learning programs — including Pre-K Counts, Head Start Supplemental Assistance Program and Preschool Early Intervention — are also shut down.

The state has slightly different instructions for secondary education. Colleges and universities aren’t allowed to reopen or allow physical instruction until Wolf lifts his closure orders on non-life-sustaining businesses.

Hospital lobby appeals to state for financial help

Pennsylvania’s hospitals and health systems say coronavirus is taking a toll on their financial well-being — and they’re looking hopefully to the state for a helping hand.

The Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania — the member organization that lobbies for health care providers’ interests — provided a grim self-assessment Thursday in a call with reporters.

HAP President and CEO Andy Carter estimated that as a result of canceling surgeries and other procedures considered nonessential, and readying themselves to deal with an onslaught of COVID-19 cases, hospitals in the commonwealth are looking at losses between $1.5 and $2 billion every month that the pandemic continues.

“The fact remains,” he said, “that the financial strain on these organizations is enormous and it is complicating the vital efforts underway.”

HAP is appealing to the state for help.

Carter outlined two primary requests. The first is that lawmakers cancel required upcoming tax payments for a “special quality care assessment program” — a move he estimated would save hospitals around $500 million. The second request is for a dedicated fund that could provide cash for hospitals if they exhaust all their other resources.

He also appealed to insurers, asking that they advance payments to health care providers to soften the blow of lost revenue. And he said he is also hoping the state considers liability protections for doctors and nurses during the coronavirus emergency, so they can focus on care without worrying about potential future litigation.

A spokesperson for the Wolf administration did not immediately return a request for comment.

HAP represents more than 240 health care providers, including major nonprofit organizations like Penn Medicine and UPMC.

MontCo will get funding to keep its community testing site

After some back-and-forth this week between state, county, and federal officials, a community-based testing site on Temple University’s Ambler Campus in Montgomery County will receive enough federal funding to continue operating through the end of May.

Earlier this week, the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced that it would be cutting off support for it and other Pennsylvania sites starting Friday.

At the time, Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoosh had said the end of the funding stream — and therefore the testing site — wasn’t “that critical” because test results from the site were often slow anyway.

However, Congresswoman Madeleine Dean, who represents a Montgomery County-based district, pushed back on FEMA’s decision. She sent a letter to the US Department of Health and Human Services and FEMA arguing the site has been “instrumental” in identifying COVID-19 cases, and that the county will be unable to pay to operate it without assistance.

Democratic U.S. Senator Bob Casey also signed Dean’s letter, along with Congressional Democrats Brendan Boyle, Dwight Evans and Mary Gay Scanlon, and Republican Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick.

Arkoosh announced Thursday that federal officials had, as a result, changed course.

“The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Federal Emergency Management Agency committed to me on the phone this morning that federal funding for a community-based testing site in Montgomery County will continue through May 30 of this year,” she said.

She added that she is “very grateful and relieved that we will be able to continue to provide this important information to the residents in our region.”

However, funding isn’t the only issue the county’s testing site has been dealing with this week.

At Thursday afternoon’s briefing, Arkoosh also said the Temple Ambler site had a rough time that morning, with high winds nearly blowing away and causing significant damage to its outdoor tents.

The site, she said, is “now closed” and will not reopen in its current location. Instead, officials plan to relocate it to the Montgomery County Community College campus in Whitpain Township.

County officials hope to get the site up and running by next Wednesday, Arkoosh said.

ACLU continues fighting to get vulnerable immigrant detainees released

Pennsylvania’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is petitioning a judge to release undocumented people in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody in Pennsylvania.

Their latest court filings come after a U.S. Middle District judge ordered nearly two dozen detainees to be released on Tuesday, but then stayed the order after federal officials filed for reconsideration.

The suit in the commonwealth is one of several the ACLU is filing. Others are being argued in Maryland, Washington, California and Massachusetts.

The group is trying to make the case that ICE can’t keep detainees safe from coronavirus while in detention, and they had appeared to be making headway with that argument in Pennsylvania. In late March, Judge John Jones III ordered 12 detainees held in the commonwealth’s York, Pike, and Clinton County prisons to be released.

Jones entered his second release order on Tuesday, telling ICE to release 22 additional detainees from the York and Pike facilities because, he said, COVID-19 prevention measures were “not working.”

“We can only expect the number of positive COVID-19 cases to increase in the coming days and weeks, and we cannot leave the most fragile among us to face that growing danger unprotected,” Jones wrote.

But that release has now been delayed.

In the petition for delay that federal attorneys filed Tuesday, they submitted additional documents they said would show that, among other things, the detainees who would be released have “extensive criminal backgrounds.”

“This information is critical to whether the balance of equities tip in the Petitioners’ favor and whether the injunction is in the public interest,” they wrote. “Before releasing Petitioners, the Court should first satisfy itself that the TRO would not create a danger to local communities worse than the speculative further spread of COVID-19 at the Facilities.”

The ACLU, in turn, filed a rebuttal arguing that the delay in releasing detainees “merely heightens the risk to detainees, staff and surrounding communities, as evidenced by developments at the facilities since Petitioners filed this case less than one week ago.”

The group noted, two female inmates have died in Pike County and five others are infected, along with seven correctional officers, and nearly every unit in Pike is technically under quarantine. They also said that in York County’s prison there is one confirmed infection and other symptomatic inmates who have not been tested.

ACLU attorney Vic Walczak noted that the Pike inmates who became sick or died were not immigrant detainees.

However, he added that he believes there’s a very real chance the detainees’ health is at risk.

“We have clients who are symptomatic and can’t get tested, we have clients who are sharing cells with people who have tested positive and were removed, and they’re still in those cells,” Walczak said.

He said he expects Judge Jones will make a final decision on whether the 22 inmates should be released this week.

State prisons extend ban on inmate visits

An existing ban on inmate visitation in Pennsylvania’s state correctional system is now indefinite — or will at least last until Governor Tom Wolf ends his statewide Disaster Emergency proclamation.

DOC Secretary John Wetzel announced the change Thursday, adding that he and other DOC officials are “closely monitoring our entire system and individual facilities daily.”

He said the entire state prison system has seven confirmed COVID-19 cases, all in one facility. He did not say which facility that was.

“We continue our efforts to mitigate the virus’ impact on our system and protect our employees and inmates across the state,” Wetzel said.

He called corrections employees who are still reporting for work in the prisons “heroes.”

Visitation has been replaced by video calls, along with free phone calls and emails. Inmates previously had to pay for those services.

WHYY’s Aaron Moselle also contributed reporting.

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