With In-Person Visits Eliminated, PA Prisons Get More Phone & Video Privileges

Mar 19, 2020

On today's program: The state prison system grapples with social distancing for staff and inmates; a look at our region’s health care system and its readiness to take on more sick people; and PA is creeping closer to its new mail-in voting deadline.

Inmates in PA prisons get virtual visits from family and friends
(00:00 — 8:36)

The Wolf administration has urged the suspension of gatherings of more than 10 people to slow the transmission of the new coronavirus, but practicing social distancing isn’t so simple for the state's two dozen correctional facilities.

“I’m very concerned,” state corrections secretary John Wetzel says. “We’re medically screening every person who comes into the facilities, and our posture has been getting that first case.”

Of Pennsylvania’s nearly 47,000 inmates, Wetzel says about 12,000 have underlying conditions that make them more vulnerable to the virus.

So far, just one inmate has been tested for COVID-19 after presenting with flu-like symptoms; Wetzel says he expects results Friday.

“Should we get a case in one of our facilities, and each facility has their own quarantine plan, they would be moved immediately to an isolation cell, but the vast majority of our efforts are preventative right now,” he says. Those measures include hand washing, more intensive cleaning, prohibiting outside visitors and cutting down on the number of inmates in cafeterias and recreational areas.

Friends and family can access their loved ones online via Zoom, and will be permitted five free phone calls per week. According to data compiled by the Prison Policy Initiative, Pennsylvania typically charges $.89 per minute for in- and out-of-state phone calls.

“We’re really committed to keeping that contact between the inside and the outside,” Wetzel says. 

Can local hospitals handle a surge of patients? And for how long?
(8:42 — 13:42)

New modeling from ProPublica shows how a surge of patients infected with the novel coronavirus could affect the nation’s hospitals. 

In Pittsburgh, authors find that if any more than 20 percent of the population needs hospitalization over a lengthy period of 18 months, the region will not be able to accommodate all their needs. State and local health officials say as many as half of all Pittsburghers will likely contract COVID-19 in the coming months. 

"We are at the precipice of a major crisis that could get a whole lot worse for a very, very long time," says WESA health reporter Sarah Boden. She's been following daily briefings by state health department director Dr. Rachel Levine, who says “there will be a need for some novel and creative ideas about non-traditional space."

Allegheny County Health Department director Dr. Debra Bogen points to other hard-hit communities in New York and Washington State that are a few weeks ahead of Pittsburgh.

"Their systems are getting overwhelmed and we're trying to prevent that. So the best thing we can all do — we talked about asymptomatic people — is if everyone stays home and doesn't interact. ... It is very hard, but that's what we need to do or else we will get faster spread of this virus in our community, and we will overwhelm our amazing hospital system here."

Tens of thousands apply to mail their votes in the PA primary
(13:47 — 18:00) 

While some worry about voter turnout in Pennsylvania’s primary April 28, more than 20,000 Pennsylvanians have already applied online to vote by mail. 90.5 WESA’s Lucy Perkins reports this is the first election cycle where the practice is permitted in the commonwealth

Residents can apply to vote by mail online through 5 p.m. April 21. Election officials must receive mail-in ballots by 8 p.m. on election night.

90.5 WESA’s Julia Zenkevich and Tom Hurley contributed to this report.

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in weekdays at 9 a.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts.