Pennsylvania adds 554 more deaths due to COVID-19, total tops 3K

HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania (WPVI) -- Pennsylvania reported another 554 deaths from the coronavirus to pass 3,000 total, while Gov. Tom Wolf said Tuesday that he is not committing to a particular schedule to lift stay-at-home pandemic restrictions in the state's counties or regions.

The large number of new deaths reported Tuesday by the state Department of Health were spread out over the previous two weeks, the agency said, as it reconciles its figures with deaths being reported by local agencies or hospitals.

Still, it was as stark a figure as the state has reported since the first case of the new coronavirus was detected in Pennsylvania in early March. It comes as the growth in cases appears to slow down in many parts of Pennsylvania and Wolf's administration moves to lighten its restrictions on movement and business activity.

With the economic fallout of the pandemic shutdown growing, Wolf maintained Tuesday that he would stick to a reopening process that relies on what he sees as indicators tied to safety.

Wolf also acknowledged that the state, as it begins allowing many businesses to reopen in 24 counties this Friday, will be unable to investigate or enforce every complaint about an employer not following his administration's safety guidance to protect workers and customers.

On a conference call with reporters, Wolf acknowledged fielding complaints from lawmakers from various regions about lifting restrictions there sooner, or removing hard-hit nursing homes from regional case counts that factor in to whether he will lift restrictions.

However, Wolf otherwise said it is not realistic to ignore case counts in prisons and nursing homes, and he said that setting a schedule to reopen counties would be arbitrary.

"What we're trying to do is keep people safe ... and we're going to be guided by that as we were guided in opening 24 counties last week," Wolf said. "The next round, when it comes, is going to come when we feel it's OK to open another series of counties."

Wolf promised an announcement on Allegheny County and southwestern Pennsylvania "soon." The county, with 1.2 million people, and its immediate area remain under the governor's strictest orders, the so-called "red" designation.

In other developments:

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CASES

About 865 additional people tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19, according to the state Health Department. That lifted the statewide total to nearly 51,000.

The number of infections is thought to be far higher than the state's confirmed case count because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick. There is no data on how many people have fully recovered.

For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up in a couple of weeks. Older adults and people with existing health problems are at higher risk of more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death.

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MAIL-IN BALLOT BOOM

A million or more Pennsylvanians may end up employing the state's new vote-by-mail system in the presidential primary that is four weeks away.

The Department of State said nearly a million people have applied for a mail-in ballot, which is permitted for the first time under a law passed last year.

Along with the presidential race, this year's contests include row offices, Congress and the Legislature.

Until this year, Pennsylvanians who did not want to vote in person needed to have an approved excuse in order to obtain an absentee ballot. But the 2019 voting reform law authorized no-excuse mail-in ballots for the first time.

As of Monday, 949,000 applications had been made for mail-in or absentee ballots, according to the Department of State. During the 2016 primary, 84,000 votes were cast in Pennsylvania using the absentee ballot process.

The deadline for registered voters to ask for an absentee or mail-in ballot is May 26. They must be returned by 8 p.m. on Tuesday, June 2, the primary day.

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UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS

People who applied to a new federal benefits program for self-employed and gig-economy workers and others barred from receiving traditional unemployment should begin to see the money next week, state officials said Monday.

About 150,000 workers have applied to the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which is being administered by the state's unemployment compensation office. The state began accepting applications April 18, but said it wasn't immediately able to begin processing weekly claims as it built out the system.

Applicants should be able to file weekly claims by the end of this week, Labor & Industry Secretary Jerry Oleksiak said Monday.
The state has received more than 1.7 million applications for regular unemployment since mid-March. It has paid more than $5.3 billion in benefits. By contrast, the system paid nearly $1.8 billion in regular unemployment compensation benefits all of last year, officials said.

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FEDERAL SCHOOLS AID

Pennsylvania is applying for $524 million in emergency, one-time federal aid to help schools respond to the pandemic.

The Department of Education said Monday it expects the federal government to approve its application within one week. Schools can use the money to pay for meals for students, technology, cleaning supplies, summer and after-school programs and for other expenses related to the virus.

Under the federal emergency rescue bill signed by President Donald Trump in March, at least 90% of the money must go to public schools and charter schools. The state Education Department said it plans to use the rest the money to support things like remote learning.

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PRISON HOT SPOT

The Pennsylvania Corrections Department is dealing with a second COVID-19 outbreak, as 18 employees and 27 inmates have been infected at the State Correctional Institution-Huntingdon.

Overall, according to the prison system, 101 employees and 58 inmates have been sickened, including 48 employees and 28 inmates at SCI-Phoenix, in the Philadelphia suburbs.

The gym at SCI-Huntingdon has been converted into an infirmary where inmates who test positive for the virus are isolated, Corrections spokeswoman Maria Finn said Monday.

There is also enhanced screening of employees and vendors entering SCI-Huntingdon. Voluntary testing is available at the prison for any employee who fails the screening.

SCI-Huntingdon is located in the central part of Pennsylvania, about 30 miles (48 kilometers) east of Altoona.

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PERSONAL PROTECTIVE EQUIPMENT

The state has launched a decontamination system that can sanitize the N95 respirator masks that are in short supply for health care personnel, Randy Padfield, the director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, said Monday.

PEMA has signed agreements with 150 health care institutions around the state. The system is designed to address the problem of getting masks for health care workers, Padfield told a state Senate committee hearing.

Meanwhile, the state health secretary, Dr. Rachel Levine, said the Department of Health will stop supplying personal protective equipment to hospitals that are restarting elective procedures, and it will focus on supplying hospitals that are still struggling with high numbers of coronavirus patients.

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NURSING HOMES

Top officials in a suburban Philadelphia county asked the Wolf administration on Monday to separate virus infections in nursing homes from virus infections in the rest of the community for the purpose of deciding when to lift pandemic restrictions.

Under Wolf's reopening plan, a county must report fewer than 50 new infections per 100,000 residents over 14 days to qualify for consideration. Delaware County is well above that, driven in part by infections plaguing dozens of nursing homes. Three-quarters of Delaware County's 258 COVID-19 deaths have been among residents of the facilities.
County officials said they view the challenge at nursing homes as separate from how the virus is impacting the greater community.

"Southeastern Pennsylvania is the economic engine that drives the state economy and contributes a disproportionate share of the state's tax revenue. It is incumbent to get that economic engine back up and running as quickly as safely possible," the Delaware County Council said in a written statement.

Levine, the health secretary, responded Monday that it's important to include nursing home infections in the overall tally because "we are all connected," with staff going back and forth to work.

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Rubinkam reported from northeastern Pennsylvania.

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