Pa. reports close to 5k COVID-19 cases; Trump declares ‘major disaster’ in the state

Medical staff inside the new emergency response tent during a media tour of the facility at Doylestown Hospital, in Doylestown, Pa., Monday, March 30, 2020. (Jessica Griffin/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP)

Medical staff inside the new emergency response tent during a media tour of the facility at Doylestown Hospital, in Doylestown, Pa., Monday, March 30, 2020. (Jessica Griffin/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP)

Updated: 4:22 p.m.

As of noon Monday, there are 4,961 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Pennsylvania, 18,696 in New Jersey, and 264 cases in Delaware. Philadelphia has 1,315 cases.

Pennsylvania’s death toll stands at 67, New Jersey’s at 267, and Delaware’s at 7.

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Judge: ICE needs to release endangered detainees

A federal judge in Harrisburg ordered the release of 10 detainees vulnerable to COVID-19 in federal immigration custody, following a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania last week.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement contracts with local jails in Pike, York and Clinton counties to detain immigrants who violated civil law.

As coronavirus cases began to appear in the prison system, advocates sued to have immigrants with underlying conditions, like diabetes and asthma, freed.

“We are thrilled that the court agreed that our clients must be released immediately,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.

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Some plaintiffs had already been released voluntarily by ICE. 

U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III noted that some of the detainees were already exhibiting symptoms that could be COVID-19. “None have been quarantined, isolated, or treated,” he wrote.

Staying in prison, where communicable diseases move quickly, could cause harm, while releasing the detainees is a relatively low risk, said Jones, and ordered them released immediately.

“Our world has been altered with lightning speed, and the results are both unprecedented and ghastly,” he wrote. “The choices we now make must reflect this new reality.”

Pa. reports 756 new cases

Pennsylvania’s Department of Health has reported 756 new cases of COVID-19, bringing the statewide total to 4,961 in 60 counties. The department also confirmed 14 new coronavirus-related deaths, bringing the state total to 67.

“The continued rise in cases combined with our increasing deaths from COVID-19 reflects the seriousness of this situation,” Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine said in a statement “We need everyone to listen to the orders in place and to stay calm, stay home and stay safe. We know that these prolonged mitigation effects have been difficult for everyone, but it is essential that everyone follows these orders and does not go out unless they absolutely must.”

Most of the hospitalizations and deaths have occurred among Pennsylvanians aged 65 and older. Currently, 33 counties are under stay-at-home orders.

In a press conference Tuesday afternoon, Levine acknowledged that the state’s total infected cases grew by their smallest recent margin on Tuesday — 18.5 percent.

“We are not seeing quite the exponential rise and the doubling that we had seen before in certain areas, and we’re going to see if that trend continues over time,” she said, adding that it is, however, “too early to draw any specific conclusions.”

She said she wouldn’t blame the diminished increase on a lack of testing, even though Pennsylvania — and the US generally — don’t have the population-level testing of asymptomatic people that some other countries do.

“Testing capability is the best that we can possibly do,” she said. “We are testing the right people at the right time.”

Certain other coronavirus detection and prevention measures have gone by the wayside as cases have ballooned.

Levine said the commonwealth is no longer, for instance, tracing contacts for everyone presumed to be infected with COVID-19 because “with over 4,000 cases we are not able to do contact tracing of every patient. It’s not possible.”

She said instead, the state is doing contact tracing in “specific circumstances” when populations identified as vulnerable are suspected of being at risk, like those who live in nursing homes or other long-term care facilities.

Trump declares major disaster in Pennsylvania

President Donald Trump declared a major disaster in Pennsylvania late Monday, ordering federal assistance to local governments and some private nonprofits dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.

Trump made such a declaration in New Jersey on Thursday.

For Pennsylvania, the declaration means the state, county and municipal governments, and some nonprofits can be reimbursed up to 75% of eligible expenses related to their responses to the pandemic. Those expenses can include paying overtime or buying materials and equipment.

In a statement Tuesday, Gov. Tom Wolf, who requested the major disaster declaration over the weekend, said he is still waiting to hear from the Trump administration on his request for other federal aid from individual assistance programs.

“We are grateful for federal funding that will support all levels of government as we work together to stop the spread, and support those who care for the ill,” Wolf said in a statement. “But I remain unwavering in my call for the approval of the rest of my request, which will provide more direct support to our friends and neighbors who are facing financial difficulties that otherwise could be insurmountable.”

That includes the Disaster Unemployment Assistance and Community Disaster Loans, which are for people who have incurred a financial loss due to a major disaster.

Wolf also sought access to the Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Program, which would help the state offer additional support to low-income families who become food insecure because of COVID-19 related shutdowns.

The state’s predicament, Wolf said, is compounded by its large population of seniors (2.2 million over the age of 65), who are more susceptible to COVID-19, and its 12.1% poverty rate.

Pennsylvania has stay-at-home orders in place across several counties through the end of April, with more than 4,000 confirmed cases as of Tuesday.

Pa. state police issue warnings to non-life-sustaining businesses

As of Monday, the Pennsylvania State Police have issued 107 warnings to non-life sustaining businesses found to be in violation of Gov. Tom Wolf’s order for them to close their physical locations.

Zero citations have been issued.

State police have issued three warnings in the region that covers Philadelphia, Montgomery and Delaware counties; six in Bucks Lehigh and Northampton; and eight in Chester, Lancaster and York.

The most warnings, 19 total, have been issued in the region that includes Indiana, Cambria, Westmoreland and Somerset counties.

Information about the types of businesses that have received warnings is not yet publicly available, said Ryan Tarkowski, a state police spokesperson.

Penn to pay laid off dining workers after backlash

The University of Pennsylvania’s Business Services Division has announced the school will pay contracted dining workers through May.

Weeks ago, Penn’s dining provider, Bon Appétit Management, informed 140 workers they would be laid off on March 31 without pay. The Student Labor Action Project or SLAP, a student activist group, organized a petition opposing the move that garnered more than 8,000 signatures. Philadelphia Jobs With Justice, a local labor organization, also advocated on behalf of the dining workers.

Penn’s announcement followed one from Harvard days earlier indicating that Ivy League schools would continue paying it’s subcontracted staff through May 28.

Philly online job fair to be held Wednesday

The Hire! Philly Coalition’s annual in-person job fair had been scheduled for March 16 at the Kimmel Center before large gatherings were banned in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s now been moved online, scheduled for Wednesday between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.  Job-seekers can register to attend here. The event uses the Brazen Platform where users can upload their resumes to be reviewed by employers.

At least a dozen companies and organizations are seeking workers, including Aramark, Comcast and the Community College of Philadelphia.

Mayor Kenny: Illegal guns must mean jail time

At Tuesday’s press conference, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney said those caught carrying illegal firearms must face stricter prosecutions because street violence continues despite the coronavirus stay-at-home orders.

“There needs to be some consequences for carrying illegal guns in Philadelphia, especially if you’re a convicted felon,” said Kenney in a midday press conference. “We’re all about criminal justice reform, and we’ve been doing that for the past four plus years, but in this particular time of crisis — you’re carrying a gun illegally you need to be locked up and kept there.”

A one-year-old boy was among five people struck during a shooting last night in North Philadelphia. It was one of several shootings in recent days that have left five dead.

Philly police have delayed arrests in relation to certain crimes related to drugs, theft and prostitution to avoid spreading the coronavirus. But violence continues despite the lockdown.

When asked by a reporter if he believed District Attorney Larry Krasner was putting lives at risk by not prosecuting aggressively enough, the mayor replied, “I believe something needs to be done differently than what we’re doing.”

More recent coronavirus cases among Black residents

Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said officials have been seeing more coronavirus cases among African Americans recently. However, he stressed that racial data on coronavirus patients is incomplete, with 85% percent of cases not reporting race at all.

“I don’t want to put too much emphasis on this, but I do want to drive home the point that this virus does not discriminate, every racial group, every person in this city is at risk.”

Montco officials question social distancing at Limerick Generating Station

Dr. Valerie Arkoosh, chair of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners, said officials need more assurances that social distancing is being properly practiced at the nuclear power plant in Limerick Township, northwest of Philadelphia.

“Today, our department of public safety received notice that adherence to social distancing measures may not be occurring at the work site now that the refueling has begun,” she said. “Exelon has a responsibility to speak to the public on this matter and answer the public’s questions about the overall safety of this operation and the steps that Exelon is taking to protect the employees in the plant.”

Exelon is the company in charge of the plant. Officials learned in mid-March that Exelon would be sending 1,800 workers from various parts of the country and state to Montgomery County to perform long-scheduled maintenance operations.

“[These workers] would stay in local hotels and eat from local restaurants and travel to and from the Limerick Generating Station each day,” said Arkoosh, adding officials found the company’s pandemic response plans insufficient. “We asked Exelon to postpone this refuel until a time when the disease burden from COVID-19 was lower in Montgomery and Chester counties. Exelon proceeded with the refueling, pledging to commit to many mitigation measures including social distancing at the work site.”

Roots Picnic delayed

The Roots were supposed to return to Fairmount Park for the annual Roots Picnic at the end of May, but the festival has now been postponed until August 1.

The move was announced today on the Mann Center’s instagram account. Ticket holders are told their purchases will still be honored and the move comes out of an abundance of caution.

WHYY’s Ximena Conde, Laura Benshoff and Katie Meyer contributed reporting.

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