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WESA Daily Briefing: June 12, 2020

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Erin Keane Scott
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90.5 WESA

News on the coronavirus pandemic, protests, 2020 election and more from around Pittsburgh, Allegheny County and southwestern Pennsylvania. 

Find all of the WESA Daily Briefing posts here

Editor's note: This post will be frequently updated with the latest news.

 

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5:59 p.m. - Pence visits Butler County manufacturing plant

Vice President Mike Pence visited Oberg Industries in Butler County Friday as part of a campaign effort to demonstrate the economy’s successful reopening.

He was joined by Republican U.S. Reps. Mike Kelly (PA-16), Guy Reschenthaler (PA-14) and Glenn Thompson (PA-15), as well as Curtis Ellis, policy director with America First Policies.

Kelly told the crowd that there would not be a second wave of coronavirus infections, a sentiment shared by President Donald Trump’s administration, but not by health experts. He said he was disappointed he was unable to attend church during the statewide shutdown.

“[It’s] one thing we always rely on in our darkest time are the Lord,” Kelly said.

Arriving late, Pence touted the administration’s reopening plan, saying, “in the month of May, we saw the largest one-month job increase in American history." Economists say this increase is due to the reopening of places like restaurants and others in the hospitality industry. During the shutdown, unemployment claims rose higher in three months than they did during the recession from 2007-09.

“We're going to do all of the things that has made this economy great over the past three years,” Pence said. “We're going to make law and order a centerpiece of it.”

He noted that the United States has administered more than 22 million coronavirus tests, “we flattened the curve, we saved lives.” In an April op-ed from the New York Times, two epidemiologists wrote that earlier action from the federal government could have prevented the infection and ultimately the deaths of thousands.

Pence also addressed recent nationwide unrest around the killing of George Floyd, calling it a “tragedy,” and reiterating Trump’s message that “justice will be served.” He decried calls to defund law enforcement agencies, a comment which received loud support from the crowd.

Pence ended his speech by emphasizing Trump’s support of the manufacturing sector, followed by a prayer.

 

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Credit Ariel Worthy / 90.5 WESA

5:08 p.m. - County data show racial disparities in COVID-19 cases

Allegheny County has published more complete data on the race of residents infected with the coronavirus, and stark disparities continue to emerge.

Black residents comprise just 13 percent of the county’s total population. Yet black patients comprise 27 percent of coronavirus cases, 31 percent of hospitalizations and 20 percent of fatalities in the United States.

“We know the coronavirus is having a disproportionate effect on communities of color in Allegheny County. A first step to addressing this inequity was amassing the needed data and analysis to pinpoint it,” said Dr. Debra Bogen, head of the Allegheny County Health Department.

Lack of health care access, patients' physical environment and poverty, all of which are rooted in racial inequality, contribute to the disparities.

4:01 p.m. - City plans to create Office of Community Health and Safety

The city of Pittsburgh hopes to create a new office that will help police and other agencies handle complicated social needs. The proposed Office of Community Health and Safety does not yet have a funding source, and Mayor Bill Peduto says he'll work to find money in next year's budget.

But Peduto says first responders often encounter situations that are "beyond the scope of their training." The office will provide training and staff support to help with long-term issues like drug use, homelessness, and suicide prevention.

3:39 p.m. - Allegheny County reported fewer than 100 new COVID-19 cases this week. 

This is the lowest weekly tally since the first week the county reported numbers in March. Due to potential backlogs, the total number of cases might end up being higher. But while testing for the coronavirus has increased across the county, the percentage of tests coming back positive continues to drop. The number of hospitalizations is also on the decline.

 
3:18 p.m. - State faces backlog of unemployment claims for school employees

Many Pennsylvania educators and school employees have not received unemployment benefits since stay at home orders began.

Susan Dickinson with Labor and Industry explained the delay at a virtual town hall this week.

“The reason it gets held up is there is a piece of the unemployment law which has us look to see what is called reasonable assurance.” Dickinson said.

That is a promise from schools that employees will return to school after a school break, since many get paid year-round. Dickinson said education employees that were laid off, furloughed or had hours cut are still likely to receive benefits. But the department is still in the process of following up with employees to confirm they won't be returning to work.

“It is just a little bit of a wait, I realize, a couple months is a wait at this point -- because so many schools were affected -- and we have a lot of educators and other people who work at the schools who have filed for unemployment,” Dickinson said.

To date Pennsylvania has distributed $14 billion in unemployment claims . And due to issues with fraud, payments are now being issued on debit cards.

2:40 p.m. - Defining less-lethal weapons and how they're used in American policing

Recent protests of police brutality and systemic oppression have prompted calls to end the use of “less-lethal weapons” to control crowds. 

On Tuesday, in fact, Allegheny County Council took up a bill that would ban the munitions altogether. But while critics of the weaponry view it as a form of police brutality itself, and point to instances where the tools have caused severe injuries and even death, proponents insist it is humane and necessary.

The president of the Pittsburgh Fraternal Order of Police Union, Bob Swartzwelder, said it would be a mistake to prohibit the use of less-lethal weapons, which include alternatives to conventional bullets as well as chemicals like pepper spray.

Without that equipment, “the police would be forced to [do] what you saw in the '68 riots in Chicago, along with canines biting individuals, swinging of batons,” said Swartzwelder, who is a use-of-force expert. “And it doesn’t look like a disciplined response. … It looks just like street fighting with people in uniforms and people not in uniforms. It doesn’t look like a professional application of force that is controlled. It turns into complete chaos.”

Pittsburgh policy allows officers to use less-lethal munitions "to perform their duties in a more efficient and humane manner when dealing with physical resistance or the threat of physical resistance." The policy asserts that the weapons do so “with a minimal potential for death or serious injury."

Read more about the weaponry. 

1:01 p.m. – Latest COVID numbers

The number of positive COVID-19 cases in Allegheny County increased by 10 to 2,065. The number includes 1,933 confirmed cases and 132 probable cases. The number of deaths stayed the same at 173.

Statewide, the number of cases increased by 686, bringing the total to 77,999. That number includes approximately 5,931 cases among health care workers and 19,394 cases among nursing and personal care home staff and residents. The number of deaths statewide increased by 49 to 6,162.

11:33 a.m. - News Guild president calls for PG leaders to resign

The national union representing journalists at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette called for newspaper leadership to resign Friday. The demand comes after Executive Editor Keith Burris defended his decision to remove to black journalists from covering police brutality protests, due to alleged bias in their social media postings. The move sparked national outrage, and caused local groups to pull their financial support. Union attorneys say they will pursue legal action for what they say was racial discrimination.  

9:20 a.m. - More PA counties to enter green phase today

Pennsylvania has been reopening in phases under a plan designed to relax restrictions in places where the outbreak is less severe. A dozen more counties, including Beaver, are poised to enter the least-restrictive phase on Friday, meaning gyms, hair salons, theaters and other businesses that had remained closed since March may now reopen at reduced capacity, restaurants may offer limited table service and gatherings of up to 250 people are permitted.  Read more here.

7:28 a.m. - Pence to kick off 'American Comeback' tour in Pennsylvania today

Vice President Mike Pence will make an appearance at a manufacturing plant near Pittsburgh on Friday as part of a new campaign effort showcasing the nation’s economy making a comeback. President Donald Trump had planned to run for reelection on the back of a strong economy, a hope dashed by the coronavirus pandemic and ensuing economic devastation, including a soaring unemployment rate. But he seized on a better-than-expected jobs report released last week, and his campaign quickly made an ad proclaiming “the great American comeback has begun.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.