Coronavirus update: Pa. Health Department pilots new drug, begins broader nursing home testing

National Guard soldiers help with coronavirus response

An employee performs COVID-19 screening for National Guardsmen. (Staff Sgt. Michael Giles/U.S. Army National Guard)

Updated at 4:35 p.m.

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Pennsylvania had 791 new positive COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, a 1.3% increase in total cases over the previous day. Over the past seven days, the commonwealth has recorded an increase of 7,301 cases, or 13.3%.

The state has recorded 6,2101 positive cases so far out of more than 6,2101 tested.

Statewide, Pennsylvania had 182 new deaths as of Wednesday, for a total of 4,025. The Department of Health says this is the result of “continued work to reconcile data from various sources,” and that the deaths have occurred “over the past several weeks.”

Philadelphia reported 242 new positives Tuesday. The city has recorded 18,779 cases so far, and 986 deaths.

DOH pilots new drug, begins broader nursing home testing

Pennsylvania’s Department of Health said Wednesday that it is working to distribute an antiviral drug, remdesivir, to hospitals across the commonwealth in hopes it will help shorten recovery times.

DOH Secretary Rachel Levine said the commonwealth has received 1,200 rendesivir doses from federal partners, and is hoping to get more.

To date, 51 hospitals have received the drug. The doses were distributed, Levine said, based on numbers of coronavirus patients and the severity of their illnesses.

“I do want to caution that remdesivir is not a cure for COVID-19,” Levine noted. “There is limited information on the safety and effectiveness of this medication … However, it has been shown in a recent clinical trial to shorten the recovery time.”

The Food and Drug Administration has authorized remdesivir only for emergency use in treatment of severely ill patients.

During her update, Levine also touched on criticism Governor Tom Wolf and his administration have faced for the severe COVID-19 outbreaks some nursing homes and personal care facilities have seen.

This week, Levine called for testing in all those facilities to attempt to correct the situation. She said she believes Pennsylvania has enough tests to check all nursing home and personal care staff and all patients for the virus.

“Of course, if you test once, that’s not conclusive, because you could be negative one day and positive another,” she said. “But the re-testing is going to be individualized … to the number of cases in the facility.”

Levine also threw cold water on questions about whether some counties will be moving to the “green” — or low-risk — designation in Wolf’s plan for reopening Pennsylvania.

There are still no defined criteria for moving to the green designation, she said. So far, 24 of the commonwealth’s 67 counties are designated “yellow” and 13 more are in line.

Pa. state police won’t crack down on counties that defy shutdown order

The Pennsylvania State Police do not plan to take a harder line on enforcing Gov. Tom Wolf’s shutdown order, even as some county officials vow to reopen without the governor’s permission.

Wolf said Monday that he would withhold federal recovery funding from rebellious governments, and also threatened to revoke liquor licenses and certificates of occupancy from non-compliant businesses.

But state police Lt. Col. Scott Price said Wednesday that while his department has “the authority to take enforcement action” against those who violate Wolf’s orders, it will try to cooperate instead.

Price said troopers have taken that approach since the beginning of the shutdown, placing an emphasis on “encouragement, education and work to build the public trust [while trying] to explain why it’s important to follow these orders.”

In fact, state police have issued only 329 warnings and one citation to firms that have operated in violation of Wolf’s shutdown order, according to Price. He said there have been no citations and 30 warnings regarding worker safety.

Thirty-four individuals, meanwhile, have received warnings for violating the state’s stay-at-home order, and seven have been cited. Price said those citations resulted from “egregious, sort of willful noncompliance” such as “underage individuals electing to have a party in a motel.”

Philadelphia makes progress

Philadelphia reported 242 new COVID-19 cases today, bringing the total to 18,779. However, health experts say progress is being made and there is a downward trend in cases, including in nursing homes and correctional facilities.

There were 78 new deaths today — the largest daily number — bringing the total number of deaths in the city to 986. However, Dr. Thomas Farley said it appears there is a downward trend in deaths because data is released later than the number of cases. These deaths announced today occurred in the last three weeks, he said.

Hospitalizations also have been going down over the past eight days

Farley said as cases go down it becomes more important to increase testing, as well as contact tracing, which involves tracking down who has been in contact with those testing positive for the virus.

When the epidemic first hit Philadelphia, the city was doing contact tracing. However, as the city faced hundreds of cases per day, it did not have the capacity to do contact tracing for every resident. Instead, the city focused on contact tracing in congregate settings, such as nursing homes and homeless shelters. Once cases get down to 50 a day, the city will conduct contact tracing for everyone.

“We are clearly making progress in the epidemic, still there are too many cases to safely restart activities,” Farley said.

“Some people may think after we get past this wave of the epidemic the virus will be gone. That’s not the case. Success doesn’t mean no virus. Unfortunately, the virus will be around until we have a vaccine we can give broadly to people. What success looks like in the future is the virus is at such a low level we can resume most of our activities and most people won’t get affected.”

Philadelphia officials encourage vote-by-mail

The Philadelphia Board of City Commissioners today advanced a plan for the state’s approval to open 190 polling places — 77% less than the 831 open in last year’s November municipal election.

In March, the 2020 Democratic primary election was moved from April 28 to June 2 because of COVID-19.

On Wednesday, city officials recommend residents vote by mail, even if polling stations are open. Dr. Farley and Mayor Kenney said he urges residents to sign up now.

“I expect because of this pandemic and being pushed into the situation, the majority of voters will vote by mail at some point in time in the near future. I think it’s better and safer when it comes to election results,” Kenney said.

Pa. to include gender identity, sexual orientation in COVID-19 tracking

A person’s gender identity and sexual orientation will be included in Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 data collection, Gov. Tom Wolf announced Wednesday.

The decision was made following recommendations made by the state’s Health Disparity Task Force, which was created to address the needs of Pennsylvania’s vulnerable populations.

As the state begins the preliminary phase of reopening, the Department of Health will conduct extensive investigations into case histories as part of its contact tracing efforts for those who test positive for the virus. A new data collection platform called Sara Alert will be used to collect information, including sexual orientation and gender identity.

Wolf also said Wednesday the state will only partner with organizations that promote inclusivity in its COVID-19 response.

“Pennsylvania’s standards of care — in times of crisis and not — are based on an ethical allocation framework, meaning care is provided equitably across all populations without regard to patient age, race, gender, creed, color, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, disability, ethnicity, religion or socioeconomic status,” the governor said in a statement.

Any Pennsylvanian who feels they or a loved one has been discriminated against can contact the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission here.

Paul Manafort released from Pa. prison due to the coronavirus

Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s onetime presidential campaign chairman who was convicted as part of the special counsel’s Russia investigation, has been released from federal prison in Pennsylvania to serve the rest of his sentence in home confinement due to concerns about the coronavirus, his lawyer said Wednesday.

Manafort, 71, was let out Wednesday morning from FCI Loretto, a low-security prison in Cambria County, according to his attorney, Todd Blanche. Manafort, jailed since June 2018, had been serving more than seven years in prison following his conviction.

His release comes as prison advocates and congressional leaders have been pressing the Justice Department for weeks to release at-risk inmates before a potential outbreak in the system. They argue that public health guidance to stay 6 feet (1.8 meters) away from other people is nearly impossible behind bars.

But Manafort did not meet qualifications set by the Bureau of Prisons for potential release in the pandemic, and the bureau did not answer questions about why Manafort was freed.

Under the bureau’s guidelines, priority is supposed to be given to those inmates who have served half of their sentence or inmates with 18 months or less left and who served at least 25% of their time. The bureau has discretion about who can be released.

Montgomery County reports new cases

There were 106 new COVID-19 cases in Montgomery County Wednesday, bringing the total number of cases to 5,380. Eighteen of these individuals who tested positive for the virus work for Norristown State Hospital, however, so it is unknown if these individuals are county residents. Thirty-seven of the new cases are from long-term care facilities, while 51 cases are from community spread.

In addition, 14 Montgomery County residents died from COVID-19, bringing the total amount of deaths in the county to 443.

Valerie Arkoosh, chair of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners, said there is a “slow but steady” reduction in hospitalizations, decreasing from the 400s to the 200s.

Montgomery County announces plans for primary elections

On May 11, the County Board of Elections adopted a plan to reduce Montgomery County polling locations by 60 percent — from 352 to 140 — for the primary election on June 2.

The primary elections will be held at schools, because children will not return this school year, said county commissioner Ken Lawrence.

“School buildings are a space that provides the least chance of exposure to any individual not directly involved in election day activities,” he said.

Lawrence added schools are large enough to abide by social distancing requirements, while having an adequate amount of poll workers.

The buildings will be sanitized throughout the day and after the polls have closed, he said. Voters will be asked to wear masks and hand sanitizer will be provided at all polling places.

Any voter uncomfortable voting in-person can vote by mail by visiting www.votespa.com. The deadline to sign up for mail voting is May 26. Montgomery County residents can find out where their polling station is by going to the voter services tab at www.montgopa.org.

Arkoosh responds to Pennsburg Mayor

Pennsburg Mayor Vicki Lightcap is proposing an ordinance to allow businesses to open under CDC guidelines by the end of the month.

“How can we not have compassion and empathy for our people?” she said on a radio talk show. “And that’s why I don’t understand what’s going on with Arkoosh. Why can’t she understand the bigger picture? And understand what’s going on in northernwestern Montgomery County? Our numbers aren’t the same as the rest of the county.”

Arkoosh said she can’t comment on specifics because she has not seen the proposal. However, she said she wants to remind the Pennsburg community that Gov. Wolf’s stay-at-home order is still in place.

“I would hope, regardless of what actions elected officials in Pennsburg take, that the community at Pennsburg would acknowledge their shared obligation to our Montgomery County community and behave in a way that protects the public health,” Arkoosh said. “It’s only been for about a week or so we have started to see our numbers come down in measurable ways, and it would be a shame if some individuals decided to go it on their own and make it more difficult for the rest of this county.”

WESA’s An-Li Herring and The Associated Press contributed reporting.

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