Coronavirus deaths top 500 across Pennsylvania, with at least 22,833 positive COVID-19 cases reported

HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania (WPVI) -- The Pennsylvania Department of Health reports there are at least 22,833 positive cases of COVID-19 across the state as of noon Sunday.

The department also reported 13 new deaths among positive cases, bringing the statewide total to 507.

Gov. Tom Wolf predicted that Pennsylvania will see a surge in new virus cases in the coming week as more than 1,600 new cases were reported Saturday.

Wolf implored residents to continue to self-isolate to get the worst of the pandemic behind them and allow the state's economy to gradually open back up.

"If the surge occurs next week, as we suspect it will, and it's within the range of the capacity of our health care system, that's going to allow us to shut this shutdown down fast, faster than if this drags on," Wolf told reporters on a conference call Friday.

Modeling from the University of Washington suggests that Pennsylvania could hit a peak in hospitalizations and deaths late next week before the numbers gradually drift down through the middle of May. Wolf's health secretary, Dr. Rachel Levine, said there won't be one peak, and that different regions of the state will peak at different times.

Philadelphia and its suburbs, as well as several counties in northeastern Pennsylvania, have been hit particularly hard by COVID-19.

Mark Roberts, director of the Public Health Dynamics Laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh, which is doing its own virus modeling, warned Friday that a peak doesn't mean that Pennsylvania is out of the woods. He said the numbers could very easily spike again if people leave their homes and businesses open up too quickly.

"What I worry about is this notion that, 'Oh, we've hit the peak, we're finished, we're done,'" Roberts told The Associated Press.

The state's mitigation measures, including the indefinite shuttering of schools and nonessential businesses and Wolf's order for people to remain at home, have helped slow the virus's spread and make the pandemic more manageable for the health care system, according to Levine.
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NEW UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS

Wolf says the state labor department has started sending out expanded federal unemployment compensation payments provided by the coronavirus relief package approved by Congress.

The measure temporarily provides an additional $600 per week and makes self-employed, independent contractors and gig workers eligible for benefits. It also extends unemployment compensation benefits for an additional 13 weeks.

The federal benefits are in addition to Pennsylvania's regular unemployment benefit, which is about half of a person's full-time weekly income up to $572 per week for 26 weeks.

The Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry issued the first $600 payments Friday, and officials said eligible people who filed biweekly claims for the week ending April 4 and who received their regular unemployment compensation payment should expect to see the additional money either Tuesday or Wednesday of next week.

A measure signed by the governor last month waives the one-week waiting period for filing for unemployment compensation as well as the job search and work registration requirements.

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CASES

The Pennsylvania Department of Health reports there are at least 22,833 positive cases of COVID-19 across the state as of noon Sunday, with 507 deaths reported.

"Now more than ever, as we continue to see COVID-19 cases and deaths rise in Pennsylvania, we need Pennsylvanians to take action," Levine said. "Those actions should be to stay calm, stay home and stay safe. If you must go out, please limit it to as few trips as possible and wear a mask to protect not only yourself but other people as well. We need all Pennsylvanians to heed these efforts to protect our vulnerable Pennsylvanians, and our healthcare workers and frontline responders."

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.

You can look here for how the numbers break down from the Department of Health by county.
All 67 counties in Pennsylvania now have cases of COVID-19.

OLDER PENNSYLVANIANS

The Pennsylvania Department of Aging has launched an online COVID-19 resource guide to help older adults easily find useful information related to their health, safety and well-being.

The guide is housed on the department's website under "COVID-19 Resource Guide for Older Adults" and provides older adults, their families and caregivers with information on a variety of subjects, including meals, prescriptions, protective services, scams, and how to stay active and connected.

"The Department of Aging's top priority is to ensure that the needs of older Pennsylvanians are being met. This online guide presents an overview of the resources that can help older adults maintain their health and safety during this critical time," Aging Secretary Robert Torres said. "Our department will continue to monitor these essential needs and make any changes required in our effort to provide uninterrupted services."

In addition to the COVID-19 resource guide, the department has offered guidance for aging services to help meet the needs of older Pennsylvanians while maintaining safety. This guidance, along with all of the programs that the Department of Aging provides, can be found here.

STATE INMATE RELEASE

Wolf authorized the early release of as many as 1,800 inmates from Pennsylvania state prisons in an effort to minimize the spread of the coronavirus.

The plan is similar to what other states and some Pennsylvania counties have undertaken, and it comes after talks broke down with Republicans who hold a majority in the state Legislature.

Wolf's office said releasing inmates will save lives, help stop the spread of the virus and avoid overwhelming Pennsylvania's already-burdened health care system.

"We can reduce our non-violent prison population and leave fewer inmates at risk for contracting COVID-19 while maintaining public safety with this program," Wolf, a Democrat, said in a statement.

The releases, to halfway houses or home confinement, could start as early as Tuesday, according to the governor's office.

The plan allows the release of inmates serving time for nonviolent offenses who are within nine months of scheduled release, or within 12 months for those considered at heightened risk from the virus.

The temporary reprieve program does not apply to inmates incarcerated for certain crimes, including violent crimes, crimes committed with a firearm, drug trafficking and sexual offenses. And it does not apply to inmates who have been denied parole or convicted of any offense while incarcerated.

Pennsylvania's state prisons hold about 44,000 inmates. The Wolf administration said approximately 1,500 to 1,800 inmates are eligible, although some may not be released because of challenges involving health care or behavioral health treatment, as well as housing availability and food security.

House Republican leaders had sought to cap any release of inmates at 450.

Wolf's order said the Department of Corrections will discuss each eligible inmate with the courts, the state attorney general's office and county district attorney's offices.

Inmates given reprieve are to be monitored similarly to parolees and supervised by parole agents, the administration said. They would return to prison to complete any remaining portion of their sentences when the order expires, it said.

The Wolf administration has disclosed that 11 inmates at the State Correctional Institution-Phoenix, in Montgomery County outside Philadelphia, have contracted the virus.

The prison system has been on inmate quarantine since March 29, with inmates being fed in their cells and all movement being controlled to achieve social distancing.

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MEAT PLANTS SHUT DOWN

At least four meat processing plants in Pennsylvania are shut down, including one facility outside the hard-hit city of Hazleton, where more than 160 workers have tested positive, according to a union official.

Cargill Meat Solutions, which employs about 900, has been closed since Tuesday. The 230,000-square-foot plant in Luzerne County packages beef and pork products destined for supermarket meat cases.

Also shuttered are JBS' beef processing facility in Souderton, the largest plant of its kind east of Chicago; Empire Kosher Poultry in Mifflintown; and CTI Foods in King of Prussia, said Wendell W. Young IV, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776. Those plants reported smaller COVID-19 outbreaks.

Young said a beloved shop steward at the JBS plant, Enock Benjamin, succumbed to the virus after spending weeks "doing everything he could to keep everyone safe."

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CASH FOR HOSPITALS

Pennsylvania's beleaguered hospitals and health networks will receive a cash infusion from the state and federal governments to help fortify them against the COVID-19 crisis, officials said Friday.

Nearly 13,000 health care providers statewide will share $1.25 billion in initial funding from the CARES Act, U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey said. The law, enacted last month, authorizes $100 billion in grants to U.S. hospitals and other health providers buckling under the strain of pandemic response.

Additionally, Wolf announced a $450 million low-interest loan program that will provide hospitals with working capital to pay for clinicians, medical supplies and personal protective equipment.

"We cannot allow any of our hospitals to become bankrupt," Wolf said Friday.

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IMMIGRATION DETAINEES

After granting the federal government a three-day delay, a federal judge has gone ahead with his order to release 22 immigrant detainees considered to be at "imminent risk of death or serious injury" from COVID-19.

Friday's ruling affects 20 detainees in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody at jails in York and Pike counties. Two had already been let go.

Judge John E. Jones ordered the remaining detainees to be released from civil detention pending resolution of their cases, further action from the court or until Wolf lifts his COVID-19 state of emergency order.

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