LIVE BLOG: Coronavirus In Pittsburgh, May 18-24

May 18, 2020

News on the coronavirus pandemic, including the responses of local governments, health departments, hospital systems, schools and other institutions. For information from the previous week, click here

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

 

Sunday, May 24, 2020

12:15 p.m. – The state health department and Allegheny County release updated COVID-19 numbers

The Pennsylvania Department of Health is reporting an additional 730 positive cases of COVID-19, bringing the state total to 67,713. There were 28 more deaths, total deaths now stand at 5,124.

In a release, secretary of health Dr. Rachel Levine said “As counties move from red to yellow, we need all Pennsylvanians to continue to follow the social distancing and mitigation efforts in place.”

Allegheny County has logged 24 new positive cases, for a total of 1,777; no new deaths are being reported. There have been 150 COVID-19 deaths in the county since March 24.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

12:30 p.m. – Allegheny County and Pennsylvania release updated COVID-19 numbers

The county is reporting an additional 14 positive cases, bringing the total to 1,753. Allegheny County has seen 317 hospitalizations since March 14 and 150 deaths.

The state Department of Health reports an additional 725 positive cases; the total number is now 66,983. The state also reported 112 new deaths, bringing the total to 5,096. All 67 counties in Pennsylvania have cases of COVID-19.

Friday, May 22, 2020

6:40 p.m. - State clarifies how it counts coronavirus cases

On Friday afternoon, the state of Pennsylvania began reporting how many of its diagnosed COVID-19 cases were discovered through viral testing, and how many were discovered by antibody tests.

Of the 66,258 cases among Pennsylvanians, 97.5 percent were confirmed by viral tests, which use a nasal or saliva swab.

The rest of the cases are classified as “presumed” positives. Most of those cases involve individuals who are believed to have the disease because they have COVID-19-like symptoms and a high-risk exposure. But some presumed positives reflect individuals who had a blood test that showed antibodies for the virus.

The state published this information after it was questioned about its data disclosure practices when the Atlantic magazine reported that the state lumped together results of viral and antibody tests.

The concern is these tests reveal two different things.  Viral tests determine whether a person is currently infected with the coronavirus. Antibody, or serology, tests show whether someone has been infected at some point in time. Conflating the tests can give an inaccurate picture of how the virus is spreading.

Read more about the tests.

6:35 p.m. - Turnpike faces revenue loss

The coronavirus shutdown has reduced road traffic and improved air quality across the globe, however toll road operators are taking a hit. 

Memorial Day weekend typically means heavy traffic and increased revenue for toll roads and bridges.

But operators aren’t expecting the weekend to make up for the losses suffered since the shutdown began in March.

In this file photo taken Dec. 11, 2012, a driver enters the Pennsylvania Turnpike at a newly completed E-ZPass Only electronic interchange in Malvern, Pa.
Credit Matt Rourke / AP

Mark Compton, CEO of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission,  says traffic is down 50 percent.

“So to put that in raw numbers that’s about 20 million fewer vehicles, passengers, customers that we won’t get back,” Compton said.

Compton says commercial traffic is down just 10 percent – which he attributes to the use of online purchases and delivery.

The commission has lost $118 million in toll revenue.  Capital spending has halted, except for necessary repairs.

All 17 service plazas are open.

6:00 p.m. - All of Pennsylvania poised for at least a partial reopening

Gov. Tom Wolf said Friday he is easing some pandemic restrictions in Philadelphia and the heavily populated suburbs on June 5, while lifting them almost entirely in 17 rural counties next week as Pennsylvania continues to emerge from a shutdown imposed nearly two months ago to help slow the spread of the new virus.

Wolf is accelerating his reopening plan even though more than 20 Pennsylvania counties remain above the state's target for new infections that were supposed to qualify them for an easing of pandemic restrictions — and eight counties are more than three times over.

Wolf and his health secretary said the closely watched metric is no longer as important, citing dropping numbers of new virus infections and hospitalizations and increased testing capacity.

“There has been a single-minded focus on keeping people safe. That was true when we started this whole process, it's true today. That has not changed and it won’t change,” Wolf said in a video news conference.

With the shutdown about to enter its third month, sustained Republican pressure to lift more restrictions more quickly had begun to pick up support from local Democratic officials and lawmakers. Small business owners struggling to keep afloat have also clamored for relief, with a few of them reopening in defiance of the governor's shutdown orders.

Wolf is taking action amid a partisan blame game over whether governors or the president is responsible for the economic wreckage. That fight could have enormous implications in the November election in this presidential battleground state.

The Democratic governor announced he is moving Philadelphia, Berks, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Lackawanna, Lancaster, Lehigh, Northampton and Montgomery counties to “yellow” on June 5, meaning that people will be able to freely leave their homes and retailers and other kinds of businesses will be allowed to reopen, though other restrictions remain.

Eight counties are moving to yellow a week earlier, on May 29: Dauphin, Franklin, Huntingdon, Lebanon, Luzerne, Monroe, Pike and Schuylkill.

Wolf also announced the first batch of counties moving to “green," the least restrictive phase of his reopening plan: Bradford, Cameron, Clarion, Clearfield, Crawford, Elk, Forest, Jefferson, Lawrence, McKean, Montour, Potter, Snyder, Sullivan, Tioga, Venango and Warren. All of them are lightly populated counties across a northern swath of the state.

Health officials say they are working on specific guidelines for counties in the green phase.

5:20 p.m. - State prisons plan phased re-opening

The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections said it will place facilities on a five-scale level, with level five being the most restrictive. Facilities will be evaluated on the numbers of cases among staff and inmates as well as which phase the counties they are located in are under, according to the governor's reopening plans.

On Tuesday, 11 state prisons, including SCIs Chester, Huntingdon and Phoenix, will be placed in level four, which allow up to 16 inmates at a time to do activities like use the law library and be in the yard, but most restrictions will remain.

Fourteen facilities, including SCIs Benner Township, Fayette, Muncy and Somerset, will placed at level three, where work, therapy, religious services and the commissary can resume in groups of no more than 20 inmates.

DOC Secretary John Wetzel said safety protocols will continue and the department will test all inmates being transferred or released to help control the spread of COVID-19.

"What we did has clearly put us in a position where we feel like we can get [starting] working back to normal, which is our goal," he said.

But, he added, until the entire state goes into the green phase, in-person visits will still be suspended.

3:13 p.m.  - CMU to resume some on-campus research

According to a release sent to students and faculty Friday, research that can’t be done remotely will be phased in first. Researchers are required to submit a plan for how the team would shut down activity in the event of a second wave of COVID-19 cases.

The campus of Carnegie Mellon University.
Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA

12:57 p.m. – More of PA emerges from coronavirus shutdowns

Residents of 12 more Pennsylvania counties are allowed to freely leave their homes, and other parts of the shutdown have been lifted, as Gov. Tom Wolf prepares to announce which counties have made sufficient progress against the new coronavirus to join them. Wolf announced last week that the 12 counties would leave the so-called “red phase" and joining the “yellow” phase on Friday. They join 37 other counties that have already moved to yellow. In addition, Wolf has suggested that he could announce that he’s easing practically all of the state’s pandemic restrictions in some other counties.

12:31 p.m. – State reports 866 new COVID-19 cases

The state Department of Health reports the total number of positive cases is now at 66,258. Of those cases, 16,668 are in nursing and personal care home staff and residents. Another 4,969 cases are in health care workers.

The state also reported 115 new deaths, bringing the total to 4,984.

11:14 a.m. – Allegheny County COVID deaths increase by 2

After several days without an increase in COVID 19 deaths in Allegheny County, the health department reported two more, bringing the total to 146. The number of positive cases increased by 21 to 1,739.

8:59 a.m. - Pennsylvania's unemployment skyrocketed at the end of April

Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate skyrocketed in April at the height of the state’s pandemic-driven shutdown to its highest rate in over four decades of record-keeping, the state Department of Labor and Industry said Friday.Meanwhile, payrolls fell by more than 1 million.Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate more than doubled to 15.1% in April, up from 5.8% in March, the department said.The national rate was 14.7% in April.Pennsylvania’s highest unemployment rate was 12.7% in 1983, according to online federal data that keeps track back to 1976.A separate survey of employers showed seasonally adjusted non-farm payrolls fell by more than 1 million in April to just above 5 million.

7:45 a.m. - Food banks get the love, but SNAP does more to fight hunger

Millions of newly impoverished people are turning to the charitable organizations known as food banks. Mile-long lines of cars, waiting for bags of free food, have become one of the most striking images of the current economic crisis. Donations are up, too, including from a new billion-dollar government effort called the Farmers to Families Food Box Program.

Yet many people who run food banks are ambivalent about all the attention, because they know the limitations of their own operations. They point to a stream of food aid that's far more important than food banks: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

Read more from NPR.

 

 

Thursday, May 21, 2020

7:20 p.m. - State's coronavirus data collection raises confusion

Pennsylvania’s Department of Health confirmed reporting by The Atlantic magazine, that the state includes results of both viral and antibody tests in its total number of novel coronavirus cases.

This practice has raised eyebrows as these tests analyze two different things: A viral test, which uses either a nasal or saliva swab, reveals whether a patient is currently infected with the coronavirus; An antibody test is a blood test that shows if someone’s has had a past infection.

“When you’re making real-time public health decisions, you want the data to be as clean as possible," said infectious disease physician Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “[When] people might have recovered months ago and then [are] added to the rolls, that’s not going to help you with decisions that you make today.”

The department said while results of both viral and antibody tests are included in its total number of cases, only viral are considered “confirmed” positive cases. Antibody results are classified as “presumed" positives.

“We only use counts of confirmed cases when we’re looking at any metrics in terms of counties going from red to yellow, or yellow to green, or any other transition,” said Dr. Rachel Levine, the health department’s director.

The state’s COVID-19 information page notes that both confirmed and presumed positive test results are included in the state’s total case count. But it doesn’t breakdown what portion of cases are presumed or confirmed.

Read more about the collection.

6:11 p.m. - Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix canceled

The annual race and display of vintage vehicles scheduled for July has been canceled, according to the organizers, the Greater Pittsburgh Automobile Dealers Foundation.

The downtown parade, Walnut Street car show and other race weekend events will return next year from July 16-25. 

Credit Jessica Nath / 90.5 WESA

4:39 p.m. - Governor eyes lifting more pandemic restrictions

Some counties in Pennsylvania could see practically all of the state's pandemic restrictions on business activity and gatherings lifted in the coming days, other than social-distancing and health-monitoring guidelines that are in place to help stop the spread of the coronarivus.

Thursday's announcement by Gov. Tom Wolf — that some counties could get to move to the least-restrictive “green” phase of his three-color traffic-signal reopening plan stages — could become official on Friday.

“So I'll be announcing a whole range of counties tomorrow moving from red to yellow and the hope is that we’ll also be making some counties that might even be moving from yellow to green tomorrow,” Wolf told reporters on a conference call.

With the number of new infections slowing, Wolf has been easing social distancing restrictions and allowing many businesses to reopen in lightly impacted areas of the state.

It is not clear, exactly, what restrictions, if any, will remain in place in the green phase.

Wolf’s health secretary, Dr. Rachel Levine, said the Health Department will soon release criteria for moving a county into the green phase of Wolf’s reopening plan.

“As we release the metrics to go into the green zone, we’re also working on what life in the green zone would (look) like, especially for businesses, restaurants, etc.,” Levine said Thursday at a video news conference.

On Friday, 12 already-announced counties — Adams, Beaver, Carbon, Columbia, Cumberland, Juniata, Mifflin, Perry, Susquehanna, Wyoming, Wayne and York — will move from red to yellow and join 37 other counties.

Eighteen mostly eastern Pennsylvania counties that are home to 60% of Pennsylvania's 12.8 million residents — including Philadelphia and its heavily populated suburbs — have yet to receive word as to when they will leave the red phase.

Read more about the latest cases and news on the coronavirus in Pennsylvania.

4:21 p.m. - RAD board votes on reduced budget expenditures

Parks, libraries and arts groups face about $20 million dollars in funding cuts by the Allegheny Regional Asset District, or RAD.

The RAD board voted today to withhold 20 percent of all operating grants for this year, and to suspend millions of dollars more in capital grants until further notice. The cuts were forced by big drops in sales tax revenue - which funds RAD, and has plunged during the coronavirus shutdown. RAD is a major funder of civic assets from the zoo to the Pittsburgh Symphony.

 

3:49 p.m. - Port Authority reinstates front-door boarding

The transit agency announced it will return to having passengers enter at the front of buses on Monday, June 1. Until then, riders will continue to use the rear door.

 

Regular fare collection will begin again on Monday, June 8. Cash fares had been suspended since late March.

 

PAT said hand sanitizer dispensers will be installed throughout its system, as well as Plexiglas for vehicles that don't yet have them.

3:14 p.m. - Some bars, restaurants and hotels can sell cocktails to go

Gov. Tom Wolf signed into law today a bill permitting establishments that have lost at least 25 percent of average monthly sales to the coronavirus shutdown to sell sealed, prepared beverages and mixed drinks for takeout only. The businesses must also offer meals to go. The drinks must be between 4 and 64 ounces and include a mixer added on premises, according to the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board.

The Abbey on Butler Street in Lawrenceville serves drinks to go.
Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA

2:12 p.m. – Nursing home testing a massive challenge for PA

Pennsylvania would have to boost its testing numbers several times over to meet Gov. Tom Wolf’s goal of administering a weekly coronavirus test to well over 100,000 people in nearly 2,000 long-term care facilities across the state. It’s unclear who will administer the tests, who will supply them and who will pay. Nursing homes and other long-term care facilities have struggled for months to contain the virus. The White House has strongly urged states to carry out the tests weekly, beginning next week. Wolf says his administration has a plan in place starting June 1 to test every employee and every patient once a week.

1:01 p.m. – Study finds hundreds of Pennsylvania towns facing deficits

new study finds hundreds of Pennsylvania towns are facing budget deficits due to the pandemic, and there’s not much municipalities can do on their own to slow the decline. 

Mayor Bill Peduto reports that Pittsburgh, which took just under 15 years to complete its Act 47 financial recovery plan in 2018, now faces a new $127 million deficit. Much of that is because of lost income and wage taxes, which cities can’t collect with so many people out of work and not getting paid.

 

Study author David Miller, director of the Center for Metropolitan Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, told 90.5 WESA’s The Confluence on Thursday that dozens of Pennsylvania cities, townships and boroughs could soon seek unprecedented levels of state assistance at the same time.

 

12:21 p.m. – Statewide COVID cases increase by 980

The Pennsylvania Department of Health reports the number of positive cases is now at 65,392. Of those cases, 16,419 are in nursing and personal care home residents and staff. Another 4,871 cases are in health care workers.

Officials also reported 102 new deaths, bringing the total to 4,869.

11:31 a.m. – Allegheny County reports no new COVID-19 deaths for second day

The total remains at 144, and the county has reported only one additional COVID-19 death since May 16. The number of positive cases increased by 31 to 1,718, Department of Health officials reported Thursday. The number of hospitalizations increased by three to 313.

8:56 a.m. — CMU researchers say half of Twitter coronavirus info from bots

Nearly half of the Twitter accounts spreading messages on the social media platform about the coronavirus pandemic are likely bots, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University said on Wednesday.

Researchers culled through more than 200 million tweets since January discussing the virus and found that about 45% were sent by accounts that behave more like computerized robots than humans.

It is too early to say conclusively what individuals or groups are behind the bot accounts, but researchers said the tweets appeared aimed at sowing divisions in America.

Read more from NPR here.

7:53 a.m.  How to pick your social distancing pods

Some individuals are forming so-called “pods" with small groups of friends or family as a way to expand social interaction while limiting exposure to the coronavirus. 

People within the same pod don't physically distance from each other, even if they live in separate residences. But pod members will still physically distance from those outside the group.

“I think it’s a great approach,” said Dr. Debra Bogen, head of the Allegheny County Health Department. “People are really sick of being in their house. And they’re really sick of seeing just [the] people who live in their households. And this allows sort of very gradual expansion of people’s physical [interactions] and socialization.”

Read more here.

 

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

6:40 p.m.  Pennsylvania total positive cases up to 64,412

The Pennsylvania Department of Health said there were 746 additional positive cases of COVID-19 today. The number of deaths has increased by 143, to a total of 4,767.

“As counties move from red to yellow, we need all Pennsylvanians to continue to follow the social distancing and mitigation efforts in place,” Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine said in a release. “We must continue to protect our most vulnerable Pennsylvanians, which includes our seniors, those with underlying health issues, our healthcare workers and our first responders. I am proud of the work that Pennsylvanians have done so far, but we cannot stop now, we must continue to take the necessary steps to protect ourselves from COVID-19.”

6:35 p.m. - Child care industry to receive $51 million

Pennsylvania officials are beginning to distribute $51 million of federal stimulus funding to the state’s child care providers, Gov. Tom Wolf announced Wednesday — a lifeline to an industry crucial to reopening the economy that advocates say is on the brink of collapse.

Pennsylvania received $106 million of funding to support child care from the federal CARES Act. The initial disbursement, meant to help the industry reopen as more than half of the counties in the state have begun to ease shutdown restrictions, will be distributed to the state’s roughly 7,000 licensed child care providers in mid-to-late June.

Providers in those counties have been slow to reopen, citing the high cost of cleaning supplies and safety gear, and lower revenue due to nervous parents reluctant to send their kids back.

The remaining $55 million will be distributed following the completion of a state study looking at the economic impact of the shutdown on providers, according to the governor’s office.

Read more about the funding and impact.

5:51 p.m.  Allegheny County has no new deaths, 29 new cases

The total for the county is now 1,687, and 144 deaths (no change from Tuesday).

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald says it's time for the state to consider how certain businesses can reopen. Though some retail in southwestern Pennsylvania has been allowed to resume, gyms, hair salons and movie theaters remain closed.

“My sense is that the state is considering that. I can’t give a timeline on that,” said Fitzgerald. “But I would imagine, maybe within the next few weeks, maybe to late-May to early June, to mid-June, we could see that happening.”

Fitzgerald says keeping businesses closed for a long period is not only unfair to proprietors, but also detrimental to the community.

5:31 p.m.  Pa. drafting guidelines to pave the return of sports

Pennsylvania is working on guidelines to allow sporting events, exhibitions and leagues, both professional and amateur, to get back to “some semblance of normalcy” after practically everything shut down to help stem the spread of the coronavirus, Gov. Tom Wolf said Wednesday.

In a conference call with reporters, Wolf said he has been in touch with major professional organizations including NASCAR, the NFL, NHL, Major League Baseball and others to figure out how they can resume.

He said he expected that his administration will, in the coming days, produce guidelines for the various venues, sports and activities to resume. But, he said, the ultimate success of the events and leagues will rest on whether people feel safe to attend and participate.

“In the end, the ultimate arbiter of our fate here when it comes to sporting events are going to be individuals who want to participate, individuals who want to be part of sports, whether its amateur or professional," Wolf said. "And we’ve got to make sure that we them give the confidence to then go to these sporting events and feel safe, that they're not taking their lives or health into their hands.”

 

A crowd watches a Pittsburgh Pirates game on the North Shore in 2018.Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESAEdit | Remove

4:57 p.m.  Housing Authority provides internet to students living in its properties

Pittsburgh’s Housing Authority will equip 870 students living in the authority’s properties with high speed internet. The Pittsburgh Public School Board approved the partnership during a meeting Wednesday. The agency will also spend nearly $300,000 to buy students laptops for summer learning programs and the next school year.

4:25 p.m.  Mobile testing unit to be in the Hill District tomorrow

Allegheny Health Network's mobile COVID-19 unit will be set up outside the Shop 'N Save on Centre Avenue from 9 a.m. - 4 p.m. People don't need a physician's order for testing, but an appointment is required. AHN said people should get tested if they are experiencing symptoms or have had contact with someone who has been infected with the coronavirus.

An appointment can be made here

4:17 p.m.  Watch: Families sing "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" in new video

The Children's Museum of Pittsburgh produced a video of submissions from families singing the classic song from Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. 

The statewide "1-4-3 Day of Kindness" honoring Pittsburgher Fred Rogers takes place on May 22.

4:01 p.m.  Lawsuit alleges Pennsylvania officials are failing special-needs students

A pair of Bucks County families have sued Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, Education Secretary Pedro Rivera and the Pa. Department of Education in federal court, alleging that online education for children with autism during the coronavirus school shutdown has been insufficient.

In a class-action suit filed this week, the families — whose full names are not revealed in the complaint — claim that “online learning is wholly inadequate to meet the needs of nonverbal and partially verbal children with autism who rely upon…in-person instruction.”

The case raises key legal, financial, and ethical questions. Namely, are kids with special needs getting the education they deserve during the coronavirus pandemic? And if they aren’t, will districts have to pay?

The education of special-needs children has loomed large since Pennsylvania schools closed in mid-March, in part because of federal law that protects the rights of students with disabilities. That law requires districts to provide individualized services to students with special needs, a task complicated by the sudden switch to virtual schooling.

Read more about the lawsuit.

2:46 p.m.  PSU develops plans for the fall

Penn State is still aiming to bring students back to its campuses in the fall, and is coming up with plans for how to do that safely. That was one of the topics during a virtual town hall university leaders held Tuesday.

Vice President for Student Affairs Damon Sims is leading a task force focused on the return to campus and community.

He said they’re considering everything including changing the academic calendar; a blend of remote and in-person classes; and safety protocols to try to minimize risks to students and faculty.

“From my perspective, the greater challenge is going to be found outside the classroom where we have less ability to control things," Sims said.

He said students’ typical extracurricular social lives are going to lead to challenges to minimize the risks COVID-19 poses. He said those could include interactions at fraternities, off campus housing, dining facilities, on buses, in student organizations, and at coffee shops and lounges.

He noted two-thirds of students live off-campus at University Park.

Read more about the university's plans.

2:38 p.m.  Nearly 30 percent of Allegheny County voters applied to vote by mail

In its last public meeting before the June 2 primary, the Allegheny County Board of Elections met Tuesday to run through final details and plans for the upcoming election, which could lead to higher-than-normal turnout despite the threat of a global pandemic.

The board heard that the county's elections office has received 225,000 applications to vote by mail and processed 189,000 applications so far. It's received 42,000 completed ballots back from voters.

“I’d like to thank all the hard-working employees at the department of election who have been working tirelessly seven days a week for the last six weeks,” said Jerry Tyskiewicz, who heads the department of administrative services.

Election workers are running in three shifts, from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. to process applications, fold and mail ballots, with assistance from employees from the court records department and seasonal park staff. 

Read more about preparations for the upcoming primary.

1:01 p.m.  Weddings allowed under "yellow" phase

Summer weddings are permitted under the "yellow" phase of the state's plan to ease the stay-at-home order.  Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine says gatherings must be fewer than 25 people.

“We still would recommend social distancing and the wearing of masks, hand washing and the use of hand sanitizer,” Levine said.

Under the state's three-tier plan, larger weddings could be permitted when counties reach "phase green," which further eases restrictions on public events.

11:19 a.m. – Technical issue delays Allegheny County COVID numbers

The county Health Department says issues with its reporting system have prevented officials from extracting the latest data and aren’t sure when it’ll be available. The county typically releases updated figures about the number of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths around 11 a.m. each day.

9:56 a.m.  Airport travelers subject to new safety guidelines

Travelers and staff at Pittsburgh International Airport are now subject to new safety guidelines as the airport prepares for more flights to resume. All people entering the airport are required to wear face coverings. Seating at gates and other areas is now limited to allow for social distancing, and hand-sanitizing stations are available throughout the airport. 

9:10 a.m.  Food bank holding emergency distribution

The Pittsburgh Community Food Bank is holding an emergency drive-up distribution from noon to 2 p.m. today at Pittsburgh International Airport.  The food bank is prepared to serve up to 1000 vehicles - each will receive two boxes of food.

7:52 a.m.  Maryland sees biggest jump in COVID cases after reopening

The Maryland Department of Health reported 1,784 newly confirmed COVID-19 cases on Tuesday, setting a new high mark four days after the state began reopening its economy. Maryland is now reporting 41,546 cases, including nearly 2,000 people who have died from the disease.

Along with the new positive tests, 5,368 people tested negative for the coronavirus in the 24 hours leading up to 10 a.m. ET — meaning roughly 25% of the 7,152 tests in that period resulted in positive diagnoses.

The spike in new cases comes more than two weeks after Maryland's previous high of 1,730 cases, The Baltimore Sun reported. Read more from NPR here.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

6:46 p.m.  Officials call for increased testing across Allegheny County

Allegheny County Democratic Councilor Bethany Hallam said she plans to introduce legislation for universal testing at the county jail and Kane Community Living Center at tonight’s council meeting.

Dozens have been infected at the jail. More than 100 people have tested positive at Kane’s Glen Hazel facility, where 18 residents have died from COVID-19. Universal testing is logistically challenging. The coronavirus spreads rapidly, so a person can easily become infected after testing negative. But Hallam says an initial round of testing is better than nothing.

“Then at the very least we have a snapshot in time of where we are with COVID-19 within these facilities,” Hallam said. “And then consulting with the medical experts going forward, we will decide how regularly this needs to be done.”

Last week, the Wolf Administration called for universal testing of all Pennsylvania nursing homes residents. However, compliance is voluntary.

Kane’s executive director says it's waiting for guidance from the state on how to conduct universal testing. The jail’s warden says the facility is following instructions from its medical provider, the county, state and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Meanwhile, the City of Duquesne wants Allegheny County to create a mobile coronavirus testing unit. Despite recent increases in availability, many people still lack access to testing. One issue, said Duquesne emergency manager Tammy Pratt, is that many residents don’t have cars.

Duquesne School in Duquesne, Pa.
Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA

"They rely on public transportation, jitney, Uber, to get them to a testing site," Pratt said. "And often times, even when that fails, they try calling a family member."

These forms of transportation bring potentially infected people into contact with healthy people, allowing the virus to spread. Allegheny County was not able to respond to a request for comment.

 

6:42 p.m. - Wolf vetoes Republican-backed bill he says violates state’s separation of powers

The legislation would have halted the creation of new state regulations until after the governor’s COVID-19 emergency declaration expires.

Supporters say the pause would give officials more time to focus on the pandemic.

But PennEnvironment’s David Masur said—because the declaration doesn’t have an end date—the measure could effectively stop new regulations.

“Because one crisis comes up doesn’t mean another crisis goes away. We have to tackle multiple challenges facing the commonwealth and we have to do that when there’s a pandemic or not,” Masur said.

More than 60 environmental, faith, civic, and clean energy groups signed a letter asking lawmakers to vote against the bill.

6:25 p.m. Pittsburgh City Council approves COVID-19 racial equity task force

The bill was backed by councilors Ricky Burgess and Daniel Lavelle. One goal for the task force is to ensure communities of color receive the health resources they need during the pandemic. 

The task force will include elected officials, as well as public health experts and community organizers with experience in black communities. The legislation says equity should be a "core element" in responding to the pandemic.

 

6:10 p.m. 1Hood asks: "What does black Pittsburgh need to know about COVID-19?"

When 1Hood Media and the UrbanKind Institute partnered for a one-off virtual town hall two months ago, organizers didn’t expect to make it a weekly event. But founder and CEO Jasiri X says interest in online learning, government response, mental health, race outcomes and more inspired he and others to branch out.

The ongoing series “What Does Black Pittsburgh Need to Know About Covid-19?” covers whatever the community demands, Jasiri says. “Not only people are listening,” he tells The Confluence, “people are engaged.” 

While national data on race and mortality remains unavailable, rates released piecemeal by individual cities show black and brown communities are broadly more likely to contract and fare worse with the disease than their white counterparts. 

Listen to the full conversation from The Confluence. 

5:03 p.m. Real estate activity to resume in Pennsylvania

Real estate sales and related activity can resume across Pennsylvania if guidelines designed to limit infection are followed, Gov. Tom Wolf announced Tuesday.

The governor’s new guidance says people in the real estate industry can get back to work as long as they all wear masks or other facial coverings, and use separate vehicles to drive to visit properties.

Business that is conducted in person must be scheduled ahead of time and limited to no more than the real estate worker and two people inside a property at a time.

Property showings will have to be scheduled at least 30 minutes apart, and food will be prohibited during in-person real estate business activities.

Parts of transactions that can be performed electronically or otherwise remotely should be done that way, Wolf said.

3:44 p.m. — Legislators want outdoor seating by Memorial Day

State legislators from the Pittsburgh area are among those asking Gov. Tom Wolf to allow outdoor seating at restaurants by Memorial Day.

As more counties enter the yellow phase of reopening during the coronavirus pandemic, six Democratic legislators on the House Liquor Control Committee signed a letter to Wolf late Monday requesting the change. They say outdoor dining can bring new business to restaurants without compromising public health. Legislators from Allegheny County who signed the letter were Dan Deasy, Anita Astorino Kulik, and Adam Ravenstahl.

Walter's BBQ Southern Kitchen on Butler Street in Lawrenceville has a large area for outdoor seating. It's currently requiring that all patrons wear masks.
Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA
 

3:02 p.m.  State treasury will begin issuing property tax and rent rebates early this year

State rebates are typically issued in July, but the Wolf administration will start sending them this week​ to try to help Pennsylvania​ns feeling the financial burden of the pandemic.

Residents age 65 and older, widows and widowers age 50 and older, and adults with disabilities could be eligible for the property tax and rent rebate program.

The state issues around 500,000 rebates each year to low income residents who qualify.

State Treasurer Joe Torsella said this is a challenging process, especially with most staff working remotely. But, he said, ​they owe it to Pennsylvanians. 

“The message we're sending to some of our most vulnerable Pennsylvanians, is: we hear you, we understand what you are going through, we are doing everything in our power to help and we understand we work for you,” Torsella said.

Recipients could receive up to $975 from the state.

The administration plans to issue 60,000 rebates per week. The program is funded by the Pennsylvania Lottery and revenue from slots gaming.

Pittsburgh's Hill District.
Credit Jake Savitz / 90.5 WESA

2:45 p.m.  New reporting procedures at long-term care facilities

Starting this week Pennsylvania will be getting a more thorough breakdown of the COVID-19 deaths in the state. Up till now the state used a mix of data reported through two different systems.

The attempts to reconcile the two sources of data has led to delays in reporting and discrepancies in death counts.

Health Secretary Rachel Levine said the state is now using only use one system to collect data, which will help the commonwealth meet federal reporting requirements.

"It’s going to be individualized to the facility depending upon how many cases of COVID 19 they have," Levine said. "We have facilities that have a significant amount of COVID-19 cases, [and] they’ll be tested differently than a facility that has a few."

Long term care facilities make up for more than two-thirds of the more than 45,000 COVID-19 fatalities in the state. The state will assign COVID-19 deaths to the county where a person legally resided, not where they died. Levine says coroner reports are not always consistent on this because of local requirements.

 

2:39 p.m.  Cameras on PPS-issued computers disabled because of privacy concerns

The 23,000 students in the Pittsburgh Public Schools district cannot video conference with their teachers when they’re asking questions or completing assignments.

The district chose to disable computer cameras that would allow video conversations because of privacy concerns.

“The devices were going into parents homes and we didn’t know if it would be clear to parents that there would be a camera on the device that would essentially be able to see into their home,” said Ted Dwyer, the district’s chief accountability officer.

Dwyer, the district's Chief Accountability Officer, is assisting the Information Technology team in the absence of a district Technology Director. So far the district has spent nearly $3 million to purchase 5,000 laptops and 7,000 Chromebooks for students. The district surveyed families two weeks after schools initially closed and found that a majority needed devices in order for students to complete assignments online.

Read more about the devices and the district's virtual learning. 

1:55 p.m. — State parks begin phased reopening Friday

Pennsylvania state park and forest facilities will begin a phased reopening Friday. Park and forest offices and tent and RV camping in yellow phase counties will be open, according to the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. The Adirondack-style shelters in Laurel Ridge will also reopen Friday.

 

Facilities like cabins, cottages, lodges and yurts are expected to open June 12.

 

All nine marinas in state parks are open, or will open on their typical opening date. Shoreline mooring sites at all state parks also are open. Boat concessions in yellow counties are permitted to open, but according to the DCNR, many are not.

 

Picnic tables in state parks will be spread out to avoid crowds. The DCNR recommends campsites and cabins only be used by members living in the same household.

 

Events with more than 25 people are still prohibited in yellow counties. If the event is under 25 people it will be permitted to occur outside, but not inside.

 

All picnic pavilions, playgrounds, nature play areas, interpretive centers, amphitheaters, and group camping facilities statewide will remain closed indefinitely.

The department has published an online map detailing what state parks and forest facilities are open by county. The map will be updated as counties move through the reopening phases.

 

The DCNR suggests the following guidelines to help avoid exposure to COVID-19 while enjoying the outdoors:

 

  • Wear a mask;
  • Don’t hike or recreate in groups – go with those under the same roof, and adhere to social distancing (stay 6 feet apart);
  • Take hand sanitizer with you and use it regularly;
  • Avoid touching your face, eyes, and nose;
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue or flexed elbow; and
  • If you are sick, stay home.

Facilities remain closed in red counties, but all state parks and forests will now have at least one restroom available for use during the day.

 

12:32 p.m. — Statewide COVID-19 cases increase by 610

The state Department of Health reports the total number of positive cases now stands at 63,666. Approximately 4,600 of those cases are in health care workers. In nursing and personal care homes across Pennsylvania, there are 16,003 cases among residents and employees.

The state also reported 119 new deaths, bringing the total to 4,624.

 

11:29 a.m. — Allegheny County COVID cases increase by 17

The Allegheny County Department of Health reports the total number of positive cases is now at 1,658, which includes 89 probable cases. The number of COVID-19 deaths increased by one, to 144, 11 of which are considered probable.

10:17 a.m. — Health secretary says nursing home testing will take more time

Pennsylvania Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine says testing all residents and staff for COVID-19 at nursing homes across the state could take up to a month. Speaking on NPR's Morning Edition, Levine said state and commercial labs now have enough supplies to conduct more widespread COVID-19 testing.

"It has been really challenging to get the testing capacity available,” Levine said.”There have been challenges in getting the reagents, the swabs, and the viral media to be able to do that."

The state has launched a pilot program for testing in nursing homes and is planning to expand testing this week.  Levine did not state the exact number of facilities or staff in line for testing.

8:12 a.m. — Gov. Wolf discourages holiday beach-going

With the Memorial Day holiday weekend approaching, Gov. Tom Wolf is questioning the wisdom of beach-going, even as governors in other states reopen their beaches despite worries that the coronavirus outbreak could surge again. Beaches up and down the East Coast will be open this weekend, albeit with social-distance guidance coming from state and local officials. Wolf, however, took a dim view Monday of beach-going while the virus is spreading. He said he wouldn't go to the beach and that he's not sure why the governors of Maryland and New Jersey opened their beaches. Governors in New York and Delaware are also reopening beaches. Read more here.

Monday, May 18, 2020

5:52 p.m. — City prepares to reimagine streets as economy begins to reopen

With the warming weather and the city of Pittsburgh squarely in the yellow phase of Gov. Tom Wolf's reopening plan, more people are leaving their houses. A City of Pittsburgh task force has proposed a number of ways that streets and transit could be modified to balance the demands of physical distancing with an increase in economic activity.

In a letter to Mayor Bill Peduto, the Streets and Mobility Task Force stressed its recommendations are not meant to be all-encompassing.

“It is a rapid response to an urgent need for creative problem-solving,” wrote Allen Biehler, the chair of the task force and the former secretary of PennDOT. “No one size or one approach will suit all places, contexts and needs.”

The report recommends clear signage across the city to help people navigate newly modified expectations in shared spaces, suggests employers stagger work start times to spread out transit demand, and offers ways to reimagine parking lanes, open lots and delivery services.

Read more about the recommendations.

 

Credit Sarah Kovash / 90.5 WESA

5:22 p.m. — Department of Health pushes back release of COVID-19 cases in nursing homes

The department had said reports on the number of coronavirus cases and deaths in all of the state's long-term care facilities would start coming out today, however it's been pushed back until tomorrow. Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine didn't offer a specific explanation for the hold-up, but said it's been important to rectify the state and federal governments' data reporting systems.

4:45 p.m. — Has the pandemic cleaned up the air?

A lot of people are talking about air quality these days, saying the sky looks bluer, the air smells fresher — there’s just something different about it.

Springtime and the COVID-19 shutdown began simultaneously, creating a pivotal moment for air quality and the scientists who study air pollution. While the coronavirus raged through cities and across the country, air quality researchers were granted the gift of a natural experiment, one that would be very difficult to replicate.

Read more from our partners, StateImpact Pennsylvania, about emissions during the coronavirus pandemic.

3:45 p.m. — Metered parking enforcement resumes this week

The enforcement begins again on Wednesday in the Central Business District Downtown. The Pittsburgh Parking Authority says the first half-hour of parking will be free temporarily to help with take-out and pick-up services. The City of Pittsburgh hasn’t monitored parking since the shut-down in mid-March and began issuing warnings downtown today. 

Credit Megan Harris / 90.5 WESA
 

3:33 p.m. — Goodwill donation centers to reopen this week

Eight stores, including those in Cranberry, Butler and Lawrenceville reopened to customers today. Shoppers will be required to wear masks and there will be a limit on the number of people allowed inside.

 

Goodwill’s David Tobiczyk said operations at the donation centers are a little different now. Instead of immediately processing and cleaning items, they’ll be held for 72 hours before distribution.

 

“So they're essentially quarantined,” Tobiczyk said.

 

Spring is typically the busiest season for donations, Tobiczyk said, and after closing in mid-March, the stores received a waiver from Gov. Tom Wolf to offer no-contact drop-offs.

 

“People being at home, needing something to do, cleaning up and coming out and filling up our no-contact bins quite well,” Tobicyzk said.

 

Other Goodwill stores in the region will reopen on a rolling basis this week.

3:07 p.m. — Uber lays off thousands of employees

Uber is laying off another 3,000 employees as it tries to weather the damage to its business from the coronavirus pandemic.

The layoffs come less than two weeks after the company cut 3,700 jobs and said it would eliminate $1 billion in costs this year.

With millions of people staying home to slow the virus's spread, ride-hailing has suffered. Uber says demand for rides was down 80% in April. Rival Lyft has also laid off staff because of plummeting demand. Read more here.

1:50 p.m. — More than 1 million Pennsylvanians request mail-in ballots

That includes 700,000 Democrats and 310,000 Republicans. For the first time, voters can obtain mail-in ballots without providing one of the excuses that have long been required for absentee voting. More than 220,000 Pennsylvanians have requested absentee ballots for the primary as well.

Those who vote in person will see the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in the form of social distancing guidelines and fewer polling places. State election officials are urging people to check online to see whether their precincts have been moved or consolidated for the primary. Read more here

12:25 p.m. — State reports 822 new COVID cases

The Pennsylvania Department of Health reports the number of COVID-19 cases is now at 63,057. Of those, 4,479 are from health care workers. Nursing and personal care home residents and staff account for 15,737 cases. The number of deaths statewide increased by 87, bringing the total to 4,505. 

So far, more than 277,000 people statewide have tested negative for COVID-19.

11:34 a.m. — Allegheny County COVID deaths remain flat

For the second day in a row, Allegheny County reported no new COVID-19 deaths. The total remains at 143, where it’s been since Saturday. The county did report two new hospitalizations, bringing the total to 294. The number of positive cases 1,641, up from 1,603 the previous day.

9:24 a.m. — CMU-built app helps trace coronavirus

Public health officials have cited contact tracing as a key part of lifting lockdowns and continuing to prevent the spread of the coronavirus; a new app developed at Carnegie Mellon University could make the effort easier.

NOVID traces users and warns them about exposure risks in their network. If a user tells the app if they’ve tested positive for the virus, people that have come into contact with that user recently will receive a notification. After a user reports positive, their network is only alerted once. Then those users can decide whether or not it’s in their best interest to get tested or go near a relative who could be at higher risk for severe effects of the virus.

The more people who download the app, the better it works. Read more here.

8:32 a.m. — Dept. of Health to report individual nursing home numbers

The Pennsylvania Department of Health is planning to begin reporting COVID-19 data for individual nursing homes and other long-term care facilities starting today. Coronavirus deaths at nursing homes have accounted for nearly two-thirds of the state total. Allegheny County reported no new deaths or hospitalizations related to the coronavirus Sunday. Eight more residents tested positive.  Statewide, the number of deaths increased by 15.

7:29 a.m. — Pennsylvanians can now get 13 weeks of unemployment

Pennsylvania residents can now get up to 13 additional weeks of unemployment benefits. Workers are eligible if they're unemployed between March 29 and Dec. 26 of this year, have exhausted regular unemployment by the week ending July 6 or later, and are available for and actively seeking work.  Benefit amounts are the same as regular unemployment and are based on reported earnings.  Recipients are entitled to an extra $600 a week in federal benefits.  More information is available on the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry website.

6:42 a.m. — What you missed over the weekend

  • Allegheny County reported eight new cases of COVID-19 on Sunday, bringing the total case count to 1,603. There were no additional hospitalizations or deaths, with those numbers standing at 292 and 143, respectively.
  • Allegheny County plans to conduct the June 2 primary with just one-eighth of the polling places it usually offers to voters, with a total of 147 consolidated voting centers.
  • North Side Christian Health Center has set up a testing site for the coronavirus in the parking lot of its East Deutschtown location. It is one of seven federally funding health centers in Allegheny County that are now providing this service.
  • The Allegheny County Airport Authority launched its "PIT Safe Travels," an initiative to "increase confidence in air travel through enhanced protocols."