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Hallam Seeks To Extend COVID-19 Testing To All County Employees

David Zalubowski
Swabs used in nasal tests for COVID-19 are kept in vials for transport to a laboratory. Allegheny County officials say it can take days to gather the materials needed to conduct the universal testing at jails and nursing homes.

A proposal to test all Allegheny County employees is expected to replace a bill that would have required universal COVID-19 testing only at the county Jail and Kane Community Living Centers.

County council had been set to vote Tuesday only on testing staff and occupants at the jail and the four county nursing homes. But then the bill’s primary sponsor, Democrat Bethany Hallam, announced her intention to add an amendment, meaning the legislation will now return to committee for review.

“I got a bunch of input … from [those] who kind of felt left out” by the original bill's focus on group living facilities, Hallam said after council met Tuesday. “And when they heard that we were proposing universal testing at those facilities, they had requested that we include them, as well.”

Hallam did not discuss her proposed change at council, so support for the new proposal is difficult to gauge. But the original bill appeared to be in trouble.

Hallam, who co-sponsored the orignial bill with Democrat Liv Bennett, cited the increased risk for coronavirus transmission in group-living facilities when she first introduced the measure in May. That concern, however, did not convince council’s public safety committee to support the measure last week before sending it back to the full council for a vote.

Hallam said, she thinks the new version will have a better shot at passage. And she added that she welcomes the opportunity to broaden the scope of the legislation. The amended bill would still require testing for people who reside at the jail and Kane Centers, as well as contract workers at those facilities.

“If it was up to me, we would test all 1.3 million residents of the county,” Hallam said. “But for now, I think it’s important that we protect our workers.”

Mass testing has already taken place at the Kane nursing homes, under orders from Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf. The county reports there are no known, active COVID-19 cases among Kane residents or people incarcerated at the jail

The jail, meanwhile, has reported no new cases of COVID-19 since early May. By Monday, a total of 109 inmates had been tested since the outbreak of the disease, with 28 testing positive. Results for two of the more than 1,700 people incarcerated at the jail were pending Monday, and one jail employee and three staff members at the Kane Center in Glen Hazel have yet to recover from the disease. The Glen Hazel facility suffered a rash of infections this spring, and 18 residents died.

Penalties proposed for ‘no-knock’ warrants

On Tuesday, Hallam and Bennett again joined forces to introduce legislation that would make it a crime for law enforcement to execute search warrants without first knocking and announcing themselves. Efforts to ban “no-knock warrants” have gained traction since a Louisville, Ky., woman, Breonna Taylor, was fatally shot during a raid on her home in March.

In Pennsylvania, courts have previously prohibited such forcible entry, although exceptions apply in some circumstances such as when an occupant is fleeing or attempting to destroy evidence, or if officers have reason to believe that knocking would threaten their safety.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said in a statement Monday that “the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police does not currently engage in ‘no-knock’ warrants or plan to implement this practice in the future.” The mayor made his statement in response to a list of demands, submitted by the Allegheny County Black Activist/Organizer Collective, for revamping government’s approach to public safety.

Under the county council legislation proposed Tuesday, officers who commit no-knock warrants could be convicted of a summary offense. Possible penalties would include a $300 fine and 30 days in jail.

The proposal would also require the Allegheny County Police Department and Sheriff’s Office to train officers and deputies at least once a year “on the current state of Pennsylvania law regarding the execution of search warrants and the knock and announce rule.”

Democratic council Vice President Bob Macey, who presided in the absence of Democratic council President Pat Catena, sent the bill to the public safety committee for review.

Another bill, which would extend the county’s prohibition of discrimination based on gender identity or expression, or sexual orientation, to medical treatment settings will go to the government reform committee. Seven of council’s 15 members are sponsoring the measure, which was introduced Tuesday. It comes a week-and-a-half after the Trump Administration issued a rule that eliminates Obama-era anti-discrimination protections for transgender people who seek health care.

The new rule is set to take effect by mid-August, but a lawsuit filed Monday seeks to block it.

Public transit is ‘the lifeblood of our economy’

Although council chose to hold off on the mass-testing bill, it approved a non-binding motion Tuesday to urge the county's Port Authority to reduce fares, or even eliminate them altogether, for low-income people during the pandemic. Hallam sponsored the motion because, she said, public transit is “the lifeblood of our economy.”

“What we see especially during the pandemic is that lots of those folks that are working in essential industries and on the frontline of this pandemic rely on public transportation to reach their employment,” she told her fellow councilors Tuesday. “And the devastation that’s resulted from … COVID-19 is both social and economic, and the hardest hit [are] our low-income neighbors.”

The motion passed with the support of Democrats Hallam, Bennett, Tom Duerr, Paul Klein, John Palmiere, Bob Palmosina, Anita Prizio, and Paul Zavarella.

Macey joined Republicans Sam DeMarco and Cindy Kirk in opposing the resolution, amid concerns that council did not know how reduced fares could affect Port Authority revenues. Kirk, and even some councilors who voted for the motion, noted that Hallam did not share it with other councilors until shortly before Tuesday’s meeting. 

“It sure isn’t very transparent to throw a motion before people, if you really wanted a good look at it and get information, just a couple hours prior to a meeting,” Kirk said.

Republican Tom Baker and Democrat DeWitt Walton abstained from voting on the public transit motion. Both cited their desire for more information.