Coronavirus update: Pa. expands testing recommendations

Pennsylvania Gov Tom Wolf

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf provides an update on the coronavirus pandemic. (Dan Zampogna/Office of Gov. Tom Wolf)

Updated at 4:45 p.m.

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To date, the Pennsylvania Department of Health has reported 47,934 COVID-19 cases (including confirmed and probable cases). There are 118,652 cases in New Jersey and 4,734 cases in Delaware. Philadelphia has 14,468 cases.

Pennsylvania’s death toll stands at 2,475, New Jersey’s is at 7,228, and Delaware’s is at 152. Philadelphia’s death toll is 607.

Note: Pa. no longer includes probable COVID-19 deaths in its official count, only deaths that have been confirmed through testing.

Pa. expands testing recommendations

Pennsylvania is expanding its testing recommendations to anyone who displays COVID-19 symptoms, state Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said Thursday. Previously, testing was limited to people displaying symptoms who are also in high-risk demographics, due to the scarcity of testing kits.

The announcement comes as Gov. Tom Wolf prepares to announce on Friday the first counties that will be allowed to lift some restrictions starting May 8.

“We have liberalized our criteria significantly,” said Levine during her daily COVID-19 update. “Previously we were recommending testing health care workers and seniors with symptoms. We have liberalized that now to anyone with symptoms.”

The Department of Health does not recommend that people who are asymptomatic be tested.

Levine also wants any region allowed to relax its stay-at-home order next week do so with adequately equipped hospitals and nursing care facilities, in case an outbreak re-occurs. She said the state has issued four million N95 masks, 1.3 million gloves and 80,000 face shields to health care workers and all of the 695 licensed skilled nursing facilities in the state.

Businesses that can, or are currently producing PPE are asked to register with the state’s Critical Medical Supplies Procurement Portal.

New Montco testing site opens in East Norriton

Montgomery County now has another option for residents who qualify for COVID-19 testing. 

Patient First in East Norriton Township has started conducting drive-up testing seven days a week. 

Tests are being done by appointment only, and patients must have symptoms of the coronavirus or be a first responder. 

Residents with health insurance will not be charged for the test. Residents without health insurance will be billed $90 per test. 

“Patient First is an early and local example of what we should expect to see more of nationally,” said Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Gale during a Thursday news conference.

Free testing is also available at a mass drive-thru site on the Montgomery County Community College campus. A free, walk-up testing site is also available to Norristown residents. 

Both of those facilities closed Thursday due to the weather forecast, which called for rain and heavy winds. They are expected to reopen on Friday. 

On Thursday, the county reported 159 new coronavirus cases, bringing the total to 4,196 since the start of the pandemic. 

To date, 275 residents have died from the virus. More than 80% of them were living in a long-term care facility. 

“We should think of where we are now as our ceiling. We must be lower than where we are now and certainly never above it,” said Dr. Valerie Arkoosh, chair of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners.

Philadelphia increases fines for stay-at-home order violators

Philadelphia has increased fines for people who violate city stay-at-home orders and businesses that violate the mayor’s shutdown orders.

The maximum fine for both groups was $300.

Nonessential Philadelphia businesses may now be fined $2,000 per violation. Individuals can now be fined $500 per violation.

Under new regulations from the city’s Board of Health, enforcement officials can also issue code violation notices to individuals and businesses that fail to comply with pandemic restrictions.

“Up until this point, we have done our best to rely on verbal warnings from police and notices from enforcement agencies, but the message should be clear: as we ease restrictions, we will need cooperation and for people to follow the orders,” said Mayor Jim Kenney during a virtual news conference on Thursday.

To date, the city has received 750 complaints about businesses violating shutdown orders, said Managing Director Brian Abernathy. A total of 583 received warnings, but no fines were issued, he said.

Police have issued 25 code violation notices for “failure to disperse,” said Abernathy.

The new regulations were announced as the city prepares to reopen parts of its economy, and as the daily number of positive coronavirus cases begins to slowly decline.

“Now it looks like we’re on the downslope, and all of us, particularly me, want the daily numbers to fall faster than they are,” said Health Commissioner Thomas Farley.

The city announced 665 more positive tests on Thursday, bringing the total to 14,468.

The city’s death toll has now passed 600 after 66 more virus-related deaths were reported.

XPoNential Music Festival cancelled

The annual XPoNential Music Festival has been cancelled due to coronavirus concerns, organizers announced on Thursday.

The festival was scheduled to take place between July 31 and Aug. 2 on the Camden Riverfront.

“We are heartbroken, and we know the artists, our members, business supporters, volunteers, and long-time attendees of this event are too,” said XPN General Manager Roger LaMay in a statement. “However, given the magnitude of the current health crisis, we know this is the right thing to do. We are committed to our community and are working on new ways to connect artists and audiences on the radio, online and eventually even in-person with social distancing.”

The festival will not be rescheduled in 2020, but organizers hope to bring it back in 2021 “barring any further complications from the coronavirus pandemic.”

Pa. awards more than $300M in emergency loans for hospitals

Pennsylvania has awarded nearly $324 million in emergency loans to 31 hospitals.

“This funding will allow our hospitals to hold steady in that fight with the peace of mind that they have access to the resources they need to provide critical care to their communities,” said Gov. Tom Wolf in a statement.

Several hospitals in the Philadelphia region received the funding, which is being administered by the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development through the Pennsylvania First Program.

Those hospitals include: Holy Redeemer Hospital, Albert Einstein Medical Center, Wills Eye Hospital, Crozer Chester Medical Center, Springfield Hospital, Taylor Hospital, Delaware County Memorial Hospital, Pennsylvania Hospital, Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, Penn Presbryterian Medical Center, Chester County Hospital, Roxborough Hospital, Suburban Community Hospital and Lower Bucks Hospital.

Hospitals across the country have been facing financial difficulties as elective surgeries were cancelled to open beds, staff and equipment to prepare for a surge in COVID-19 patients.

While Pennsylvania’s Health Department has cleared hospitals to restart elective surgeries if they can perform them safely, the financial impacts have already been felt, including closures of units and staff furloughs.

Facing a “significant” drop in patients, Springfield Hospital in Delaware County has temporarily shut down all its units except for its emergency department.

The decision, slated to be in place until at least June, will impact roughly 30 nurses currently assigned to other units. Hospital officials say a flex program will begin Monday that will do “everything possible to find alternative assignments” for those nurses.

“By distributing this emergency funding to our commonwealth’s health care system, we are safeguarding our hospitals working hard to combat this virus,”said Wolf.

Wolf urges ‘self-enforcement’ when golf courses, campgrounds reopen

Golf courses, marinas, guided fishing trips and privately-owned campgrounds in Pennsylvania are permitted to reopen starting Friday.

All of those businesses must follow the state’s guidelines for life-sustaining businesses, which include cleaning protocols and having enough security to control access.

Residents are expected to wear masks and practice social distancing.

“This is a self-enforcement thing. You owe it to yourself to stay safe. You owe it to your family to stay safe and keep them safe,” said Gov. Tom Wolf during a virtual news conference on Thursday.

Construction work will also resume on Friday.

The state is lifting restrictions on these businesses as it prepares to reopen parts of the state on May 8. Wolf is expected to announce on Friday which counties will be the first move from the “red” to “yellow” phase in the administration’s color-coded reopening plan.

Wolf said the first phase of the plan will be an “experiment for all of us.”

“To figure out businesses, health care systems, schools, individuals, families — how do we live and interact in this new world. That’s what yellow means,” the governor said.

1 in 4 Pa. residents apply for unemployment

Nearly one in four Pennsylvanians have applied for unemployment compensation since the beginning of the coronavirus lockdown, according to an analysis of federal data, bringing the total to 1.6 million.

According to official numbers released by the U.S. Department of Labor on Thursday, 131,282 people filed new claims last week. Pennsylvania releases its own preliminary count of new unemployment claims, but those numbers show only 114,700 for the week ending April 25.

Nationally, 3.84 million Americans filed claims that week and the national uninsured rate rose to 12.4%.

The commonwealth has the second-highest number of unemployment claims in the U.S. behind California.

About 70% of the state residents who have applied for traditional unemployment compensation are being paid, said director of the Office of Unemployment Compensation Benefits Susan Dickinson on Monday. Most of the remaining claims were rejected as ineligible.

The state’s new program to provide support to gig workers and freelancers who are unemployed, called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, has received an additional 121,883 applications through Thursday. Those workers can expect to start receiving back-dated assistance in mid-May, according to the Department of Labor and Industry.

Bucks County to expand testing in its jail, certain long-term care facilities

Bucks County plans to follow a similar path as Montgomery County — where last week officials tested every one of the more than 900 people incarcerated at the county correctional facility for COVID-19.

Montco found that 171 people — or around 18% were positive for COVID-19. Most of them did not have symptoms.

David Damsker, the director of the Bucks County health department, said plans are in the works to do “targeted testing” of certain people who work in the Bucks correctional facility, as well as people incarcerated there.

County Commissioner Diane Ellis-Marseglia said they have tested about 160 of the 490 people who are incarcerated there.

She also said they will start testing every new prisoner as they arrive at the facility.

At Neshaminy Manor, the county-run nursing home that has had 20 coronavirus-related deaths as of Thursday, Damsker said they have just received new tests to begin mass-testing more residents and employees in the 360-bed facility.

“It just took us a little longer because we have a very large facility and it’s not very easy to procure several hundred swabs to do that,” Damsker said.

Bucks County has 2,907 cases as of Thursday, according to its website, and 198 deaths. There are 61 long-term care facilities in the county with COVID-19 cases.

WHYY’s Emily Scott contributed reporting.

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