Gov. Wolf extends stay-at-home order to four more Pa. counties

Pennsylvania has quarantined its entire prison population of 44,600 people following the first confirmed COVID-19 case in one of the state’s correctional facilities.

A federal medical station is set up at Temple University's Liacouras Center in Philadelphia, Monday, March 30, 2020, to accommodate an influx in hospital patients due to the coronavirus outbreak. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

A federal medical station is set up at Temple University's Liacouras Center in Philadelphia, Monday, March 30, 2020, to accommodate an influx in hospital patients due to the coronavirus outbreak. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Updated 5:40 pm 

As of noon Monday, there are 4,150 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Pennsylvania, 16,636  in New Jersey, and 264 cases in Delaware. Philadelphia has 1,072 cases.

Pennsylvania’s death toll stands at 49, New Jersey’s at 198, and Delaware’s at 6.

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Wolf extends school and business closures

As coronavirus cases and deaths continue to rise, Pennsylvania officials have announced that closure orders for schools and non-life-sustaining businesses are now indefinite.

Previously, Governor Tom Wolf had ordered schools and businesses to close through April 6. But in a remote press conference Monday, he said he’d been too optimistic.

“Up until now I’ve been saying ‘another two weeks, another two weeks,’” he said. “Now I’m going to leave the date indefinite. We’re going to keep our schools and businesses closed as long as we need to keep them closed to keep Pennsylvanians safe.”

“Right now,” he added, “it isn’t safe.”

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Wolf also extended stay-at-home orders to cover four new counties — Carbon, Dauphin, Schuylkill and Cumberland — bringing the total under such an order to 26. He extended the end dates of those orders too, from April 6 to April 30.

59 counties have now reported at least one COVID-19 case. But Wolf said he’s still reluctant to move to a statewide stay-at-home order.

“The way we’ve done it in Pennsylvania is to try to take a measured and balanced approach,” he said. “We are rolling this out in those counties where the county leadership have asked for it … and there’s a real need.”

Wolf said while he thinks the commonwealth’s approach is “the appropriate way,” if caseloads become more significant across the state “We always have the option of moving to a statewide stay-at-home order.

Wolf has also been cautious when it comes to enforcement. State and municipal police, and some state departments, have the power to issue citations to non-life-sustaining businesses that don’t comply with closure orders, and those citations could potentially lead to fines and even jail time.

But so far, officials have been reluctant to use them. State police say so far they have issued warnings, but no formal citations.

While some states have begun issuing fines to people who violate shelter-in-place orders, Pennsylvania has no official penalty for people in affected counties who don’t follow state guidelines.

“The goal here is that Pennsylvanians understand how important this is and they [listen to state orders] because it’s the right thing to do,” he said.

Unemployment compensation claims continue to skyrocket

Pennsylvania’s Labor and Industry Department says 834,684 people have filed new claims for unemployment compensation since March 15.

“We have gone, basically within a matter of days, from a period of low unemployment claims to historic highs,” Labor and Industry Secretary Jerry Oleksiak said, adding that the flood of claims “eclipses anything that we’ve experienced for a weekly total, and maybe even a yearly total.”

The department has said its previous high-water mark for unemployment filings in a single week came in January 2010, when Pennsylvanians filed 61,181 initial claims.

The influx of claims brought technology issues with it.

At the same time Oleksiak was holding a remote press conference Monday, the department was trying to restore its online portal for people to file continuing unemployment claims, which had crashed earlier in the day.

Unemployment Compensation Policy Director Susan Dickinson it was unclear what had caused the crash.

Oleksiak said the department has been “lucky” not to have more technology issues, but noted that overall, claims filing has been slow — particularly over the phone.

Philadelphia emergency rooms quiet for now; City extends FOP contract for a year

Philadelphia announced 182 new cases on Monday, bringing the total number of people with COVID-19 in the city up to 1,072. Some of that jump may be attributed to private labs that do not report confirmed cases over the weekend, said Health Commissioner Thomas Farley.

There was one more death attributed to the virus, a woman in her 80s with underlying conditions, bringing the total up to 9. Five of the deaths have been linked to a nursing home.

The new numbers also underscore the extent of the virus, which has now been confirmed in every Philadelphia ZIP code. While demographic information about patients with COVID-19 is limited, Farley said there has been a noticeable uptick of African Americans getting sick with the virus in the 15% of confirmed cases where the race of the patient is known.

“This virus does not discriminate,” said Farley. “If you have to go out, wear a mask.”

Officials said they could not anticipate when the number of cases would peak, but that for the time being, emergency rooms in the city are less busy than usual.

To keep people from gathering in parks, managing director Brian Abernathy said the city is removing the nets from basketball hoops at some recreation centers but did not specify which ones.

In order to keep attention on the pandemic, Mayor Jim Kenney said the contract with the police union, the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, has been extended by a year, with a 2.5% wage increase. The city is pursuing extensions with three other public service sector unions as well.

The City also shared that local leaders are donating millions to feed Philadelphians and extend remote learning to area students.

Philadelphia Emergency Fund for Stabilization of Education includes $5 million from the William Penn Foundation and $2 million from Vanguard’s Strong Start for Kids, going towards early childhood education services, a keystone issue for Kenney.

The fund will “help our youngest children learn again, and learn again soon,” he said.

The managing partners of the Philadelphia 76ers, Josh Harris and David Blitzer, also donated enough money to Philabundance, the food pantry, to pay for 20,000 boxes of food to feed 160,000 Philadelphians, according to Kenney. On Monday, the pair also vowed to contribute funds for 10,000 Chromebooks for Philadelphia School District students.

Montgomery County peak “is probably two weeks away”

The total number of COVID-19 cases for the suburban Philadelphia county is now 506, in 51 municipalities. Over the weekend, a sixth county resident died of the disease.

“We have seen some modeling data that would suggest that the peak here is probably two weeks away,” said commission chair Val Arkoosh. “This is no time to relax. This is a time to hunker down.”

Three correctional officers at the Montgomery County Correctional Facility have tested positive, but so far no people incarcerated there have. In order to reduce the spread of coronavirus in local prisons, the county expedited parole and released some people with ankle monitors, lowering the number of people in jail by 100.

Delaware County also saw a spike in cases over the weekend, with 45 new confirmed COVID-19 patients, for a total of 300.

Pennsylvania hospitals announce furloughs due to financial strain

Steward Health Care has told employees to expect furloughs, mostly among nonclinical staff. The Massachusetts-based hospital system operates 37 hospitals across the country, including two in Pennsylvania: a 220-bed acute care hospital in Sharon and a 196-bed facility in Easton.

To prepare for the anticipated surge in COVID-19 patients, Steward’s hospitals postponed elective surgeries, as hospital systems have across the country. But the proceeds from those procedures are what keep a lot of hospitals in the black.

“Elective surgeries are the cornerstone of our hospital system’s operating model – and the negative impact due to the cancelations of these procedures cannot be overstated,” Nicholas Puleo, a representative for Steward, wrote in a statement. “In addition, patients are understandably cautious and choosing to defer any nonemergency treatments or routine visits until this crisis has passed.” On top of that, Puleo said, interruptions on the insurance side have made it take longer for the hospitals to get reimbursed.

Pa. prisons under quarantine after first COVID-19 case

The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections announced Monday that it has quarantined its entire population of 44,600 people and will restrict their movements following the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in one of the commonwealth’s prisons.

“Quarantining the entire system is in the best interest of our employees and our inmates,” said Corrections Secretary John Wetzel in a statement. “We must take this step to contain the virus to one facility and to keep it from spreading throughout the system.”

That case cropped up in the State Correctional Institute (SCI) – Phoenix in Montgomery County, ground zero for coronavirus cases in Pennsylvania.

Inmates will now take meals in their cells and be “provided with in-cell programming,” according to the department. Video and phone calls will still be allowed to take place outside of the cells.

Alongside these measures, the DOC said it has been working to release inmates who have already served their minimum sentences.

Local businesses warned for defying governor’s order

Nearly 100 businesses in Pennsylvania received warnings over the weekend for operating in spite of the commonwealth’s order to close all non-life sustaining businesses. The state has issued zero citations so far.

The largest number of warnings were issued in a swath of counties cutting directly through Central Pennsylvania, areas with fewer confirmed cases of coronavirus.

The enforcement was carried out by the Pennsylvania State Police, Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, Department of Health, Department of Agriculture, as well as local law enforcement.

Police: Crime continues to drop in Philadelphia

New data from the Philadelphia Police Department shows that as of Sunday, major crime has dropped 22% since March 9, one day before the city reported its first confirmed case of COVID-19.

Violent crime, which includes shootings and murders, dipped nearly 25% over the last three weeks.

Property crime, which includes home burglaries and stolen cars, was down 21% during that span.

“We’re continuously working to discharge every aspect of our core mission,” said Staff Inspector Sekou Kinebrew, a department spokesperson.

Experts predict crime will continue to fall in Philadelphia and other major cities across the country the longer stay-at-home orders remain in place.

Pharmacists launch hotline

Patients unable to get prescription medications can now reach out to a hotline started by the Philadelphia Association of Retail Druggists.

The group, which is comprised of independent pharmacies, will direct callers to locations in the Northeast and Southeast Pennsylvania that “could supply their needs either at the store or to be delivered,” said Richard Ost, an independent pharmacist in Philadelphia.

The hotline can be reached at 215-934-9412.

WHYY’s Nina Feldman, Katie Meyer and Aaron Moselle contributed reporting.

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