Pa. coronavirus update: Officials to expand testing throughout the commonwealth

A man wearing a face mask bicycles along Broad Street

A man wearing a face mask bicycles along Broad Street, Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Updated 4:34 p.m.

Ask us about COVID-19: What questions do you have about the current surge?

Pennsylvania reported 5,676 new cases of the coronavirus Tuesday, bringing the statewide total to 367,140. The state reported 180 new fatalities Tuesday, bringing the total to 10,563 deaths attributable to COVID-19.

On Tuesday, Philadelphia reported 601 additional confirmed cases, for a total of 67,025. The city’s Department of Public Health confirmed nine additional fatalities, which brings the total number of deaths attributable to the virus in Philadelphia to 1,985

In ‘darkest days,’ Philadelphia officials look toward vaccine

In an update Tuesday, city Health Commissioner Thomas Farley noted a slight decrease in case numbers in recent days. But because there were fewer tests last week due to the holiday, he added that it’s hard to say what that means for potential post-Thanksgiving viral spread — and that, in a coronavirus case peak that could mark the “darkest days of the epidemic,” the possibility of hospitals coming under severe strain in the next few weeks is still a risk.

It’s considered likely that both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines will be approved by the Food and Drug Administration. If they are, Farley said, “it’s likely that we’ll start vaccinating in mid-December, just two to three weeks from now.”

The first round of vaccines will be limited, with priority going to health care workers who are routinely exposed to COVID-19. “Hospitals will get [doses of the] vaccine that is less than the total number of health care workers they have, and so they’re going to have to make the decision about who are the highest risk among them,” Farley said.

As more doses become available, city officials plan to expand to groups that are at higher risk for dangerous complications from the virus, including elderly and immunocompromised populations.

Philadelphia will not be convening an expert group to independently evaluate the vaccines, although city health officials plan to assess Phase 3 trials and other states’ expert reviews once they are released.

In the meantime, with coronavirus cases still on the rise and the winter holidays approaching, it’s important to maintain safety protocol until the vaccine arrives. Thanksgiving brought a surge in testing demand — the city, which typically tests 5,000 to 6,000 people for COVID-19 every day, was testing up to 10,000 prior to that holiday — and that demand, in turn, brought delays in turnaround for test results.

Health officials advised that for winter holidays like Christmas, Hanukkah, and New Year’s Eve, Philadelphians should still celebrate only with members of their immediate households.

Pa. expands testing, plans to dispatch teams to 61 counties

Starting Wednesday, Dec. 2, the state is partnering with AMI Expeditionary Healthcare to open five free testing locations equipped with “strike teams” that will move to new sites each week.

The locations are funded through a state epidemiology laboratory capacity grant, using money designated for testing expansion. They will start Wednesday in Bedford, Mifflin, Tioga and Northampton counties and Friday in and Butler County, with plans to cover up to 61 counties if need be. Since Allegheny, Bucks, Chester, Erie, Montgomery and Philadelphia counties have their own county health departments, they are excluded from the testing expansion.

“These testing sites are open to anyone who feels they need a test,” state director of testing Michael Huff said at a Tuesday briefing. The tests administered will be PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests, with no appointment or proof of symptoms necessary. Both drive-through and indoor walk-in testing will be provided from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday this week.

“The Department of Health will continue to deploy testing based on the number of total confirmed cases per 100,000 people in a county, as well as where outbreaks are currently happening,” Huff added.

Pennsylvania’s counties of concern — identified as those with percent positives above 5% — can be found on the commonwealth’s COVID-19 Early Warning Dashboard.

Additional tax exemptions, fee extensions for small businesses

In the ninth month of a pandemic that has hit small businesses especially hard, Philadelphia’s Department of Revenue announced several changes aimed at providing the city’s businesses with additional relief: an exemption from paying use and occupancy tax during the indoor dining shutdown; an amendment to BIRT (Business Income and Receipts Tax) returns and the option of refund receipt; and an extension of the $500 rubbish and refuse collection fee due date until June 30, 2021 — previously, half the annual fee was due Dec 31.

The exemptions, amendments and extensions are meant to provide relief to small businesses, particularly restaurants and bars, given the additional pandemic restrictions that have been harsh on the local economy.

“I recognize that none of these changes will be enough to fully overcome the impact of an economic downturn that has hit certain sectors, including restaurants, tremendously,” Mayor Jim Kenney said. “But rest assured that within the constraints of the city’s own budget challenges, we are looking for new ways to provide relief.”

Montgomery County reaches grim case-count milestone

On Tuesday, Montgomery County officials announced 1,927 new coronavirus cases and 12 new deaths from Nov. 25 to Dec. 1. The countywide case total is now at 20,997 since the start of the pandemic. The death toll is now at 876.

Testing sites in Montgomery County will expand hours this week and will now be open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. If you live, work or attend school in Montgomery County, testing will be available by appointment only. Appointments can be made online beginning at 7 a.m. or over the phone beginning at 8:30 a.m. by calling 610- 970-2937.

The latest surge in cases comes as all public and private schools in the county are required to continue with remote learning only through Dec. 6.

On Monday, Dec. 7, schools will be able to shift back to in-person learning.

“For those elected school boards across the county that vote to offer in-school education, we want to keep our positivity rate and incidence rate of new cases as low as possible to minimize risk for students, teachers, support staff, and bus drivers in our schools, said Dr. Val Arkoosh, chair of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners. “In addition, we want to continue to allow businesses that are operating safely without COVID-19 transmission to continue to operate.”

Nearly $1M in CARES funds to address Montco food insecurity

A collaboration between Montgomery County and the MontCo Anti-Hunger Network resulted in the allocation of about $1 million in CARES funding to 43 local food pantries on Nov. 19.

“I’m really proud that our county commissioners turned immediately to the charitable food network to see what they could do. You know, they really understand the value that the charitable food network brings to community stability, and it’s just an example of how government works,” said Paula Schafer, executive director of the MontCo Anti-Hunger Network, which coordinates resources to food pantries in the county.

The joint effort began in October, but was the culmination of six years of relationship-building, Shafer said.

The funds went toward wholesale food purchases, food pantry equipment, and renovations.

According to Schafer, at the beginning of the pandemic, food pantries in Montgomery County were seeing a two to three times increase in visitors.

Though the number decreased during the summer, a recent surge in coronavirus cases have caused another increase in clients.

“But at this point, there are many people who have exhausted all of their resources in trying to manage a gap in employment. And more and more people than ever are really becoming dependent on the support that the food pantry can give them,” Schafer said.

‘Harvest 2020’ initiative battles COVID-era food insecurity

Many people are facing a rise in pandemic-related food insecurity. Local gardeners’ giving has helped fill the gap.

The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society is wrapping up its Harvest 2020 initiative, which started in May and coordinated 10,471 gardeners to donate more than 30,000 pounds of produce to hunger-relief organizations throughout the Philadelphia region during the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the initiative, PHS worked with local organizations including the Chester County Food Bank, the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, and Philabundance, as well as with the Sankofa Community Farm at Bartram’s Garden and the Cooperative Gardens Commission’s network of gardeners.

Almost 12% of households in the Philadelphia region are food-insecure; that number was projected to double as a result of COVID-19. And local food pantries have experienced a staggering increase in demand over the past few months.

If you’re interested in supporting food banks and other hunger relief organizations over the holiday season, it’s usually better to donate rather than canned goods, since those organizations are more capable of recognizing and filling individual households’ needs. Philabundance, for example, uses every dollar donated to provide enough food for up to two meals.

Amid COVID stress, services available to help vets, their families

The holidays can be a tough time for veterans and active military service members — and the additional strain of COVID-19 isn’t helping. In Pennsylvania, which has the fourth-largest veterans population in the country, public officials are urging active-duty service members, veterans, and their families to seek help when they need it.

“It’s a simple fact that military service members, and veterans, and their families, often face unique challenges … that civilians simply do not share,” said Rick Hamp, special assistant to the deputy adjutant general for veterans affairs with the Pennsylvania Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. He cited post-traumatic stress disorder, substance use disorders, homelessness, depression, and other struggles that affect veterans disproportionately.

But, officials said, resources are available to help those individuals and families. At a press briefing Tuesday, Hamp, alongside Department of Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller and Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs Secretary Jen Smith, cited veteran programs and centers in Dauphin, Allegheny, and Lackawanna counties that have received grants to increase their resources and support this year. Pennsylvania’s public programs and health and human service benefits can help those veterans meet their physical needs, as well.

In the event of a mental health crisis, Miller reminded state residents that they can contact her department’s free helpline, Persevere PA, which is staffed by counselors and available at 1-855-284-2494. For veterans specifically, the Veterans Crisis Line is available at 1-800-273-8255, or via text to 838255. Anyone can seek find help using the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) or the Crisis Text Line (text “PA” to 741741).

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