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Pennsylvania Prisons Have Relatively Low Cases, But Are Still COVID-19 Hotbeds

Courtesy Bureau of Prisons
The Pennsylvania Prison Society says the likelihood of COVID-19 is higher for inmates than the general public, but the state's masking ordinance has made a big difference in keeping outbreaks at bay.

On today's program: The Pennsylvania Prison Society says while facilities have followed COVID-19 safety guidelines, quarantine protocols have made it hard for those incarcerated to stay in touch with loved ones; The Allegheny Conference on Community Development launched a campaign to encourage Pittsburghers to follow public health guidelines and slow the spread of COVID-19; and the City’s Public Works Director, Mike Gable, retires after 45 years in government.

Inmates are more vulnerable to COVID-19 in prison, but some state precautions have helped

(0:00 - 6:46)


Another state prison saw its first inmate death due to coronavirus early this month. As of Monday, more than 18,000 inmates tested positive for the virus, according to the State Department of Corrections, 65 have died.  


The news of this death and the surge in cases some facilities are seeing means more spread and potentially more death could be on the horizon. 


State Corrections Secretary John Wetzel told the Confluence in March that out of nearly 47,000 inmates in the state, about 12,000 have underlying conditions making them more vulnerable to the virus.


“To the credit of the Department of Corrections in Pennsylvania, they’re doing a better job than most states,” says Pennsylvania Prison Society Volunteer Director John Hargreaves. Nationally, 1 in 5 inmates has tested positive for COVID-19, he says, but in Pennsylvania that rate is 1 in 7. 


“However, one in seven is three times the rate of [acquiring the virus for] the citizens that are wandering around not in prisons, so it’s still very dangerous in prison for an inmate, vis-a-vis COVID,” says Hargreaves.


He says these lower case numbers are due to Pennsylvania’s early mandatory mask policy, and the Corrections Department’s ongoing testing and quarantining program. 


The pandemic has limited in-person visits between inmates and loved ones, but the department has broadened video visitations. Hargreaves says such visits help inmates manage their mental health, but there’s a caveat: “Because COVID is increasing in prisons across Pennsylvania, more inmates are put in quarantine and they lose access to e-mail and video visits,” says Hargreaves. 


“This is very stressful for the inmates, keeping in mind that prisons are already overcrowded, they’re poorly ventilated, inmates are frequently in dorms so there’s no social distancing in dorms,” he explains.


The state Department of Health, in their initial vaccination plan, determined correctional inmates to be vaccinated under Phase 1B, which Hargreaves says was the right decision on the part of the department.


“Proud to Protect Pittsburgh” campaign launches with local celebrities 

(6:48 - 12:27)


With COVID-19 cases still surging across Pennsylvania and locally, and some still not heeding advisories from health and government officials, business leaders are hoping a new effort to protect our region will resonate especially during the holidays.


The Allegheny Conference on Community Development launched the “Proud to Protect Pittsburgh” campaign last week, releasing a video of local celebrities, like Steeler Hall of Famer Franco Harris and recognizable businesses. The campaign urges Pittsburghers to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines while also supporting businesses.


Stefani Pashman, CEO of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, hopes the video catches the eyes of everyone: businesses and patrons alike.


“This is really about talking to our neighbors, talking to each other and the broader Pittsburgh region about being a good neighbor, being proud to be a Pittsburgher, and heeding the advice of our public health professionals and the guidance they’re putting out so we can fight this pandemic,” says Pashman.


In supporting business throughout the pandemic, Pashman says the Conference has launched other resources like webinars.


“What we realized that we were missing was a lot more of a mask communication,” she says. “We’ve been doing consumer confidence surveying since the beginning of pandemic, and what we know is that about 55 percent of people in the Pittsburgh region are only wearing their masks occasionally,” says Pashman. “We have to move that number. We need to get it to 80 percent, 90 percent, 100 percent of people complying with mask wearing.”


The latest of the conference’s surveys also shows consumer confidence in economic opportunity is declining, but there’s less pessimism about the economy in the long-term. 


She says this campaign with local celebrities may work where public health officials' pleas have not. 


“I think there's something about this COVID-19 and the rules we’re putting out that it’s easier, in some ways, to relate to someone who’s just trying to live like us,” says Pashman. “Somebody who wants to get back to their sport, to their restaurant, to see their families.”


Mike Gable leaves the city as Public Works director

(12:32  - 17:58)


Pittsburgh’s Public Works Director Mike Gable is retiring in January after serving the city for over 45 years.


He worked his way up the ranks, joining the city as a laborer in 1974, and has been with the city through seven mayors, a recession, blizzards and annual potholes.


In the announcement of Gable’s retirement, he said in a statement, “I was given an opportunity over 45 years ago because someone saw something in me that I did not know I had.” 


“Since 1980, I've gone through lots of administrative titles on both the Parks and Rec side and Public Works side,” says Gable. 


He came into the position of director at Public Works in 2014, and says in his tenure, the department has greatly improved the snow and ice control program and used technology to maximize efficiency and staff. 


“Technology has solved a lot of our problems,” says Gable.  He gives the example of litter crews: Staff would drive around looking for what bins needed to be emptied. Now, some neighborhood trash cans have sensors to tell crews which are full and need to be emptied, and which are not. 


The city’s Snow Plow tracker technology has also made it easier to assign routes to staff, and show residents what streets were plowed and when. 


The accomplishment Gable cites as his proudest achievement is helping move Pittsburgh up in the Trust for Public Land’s annual park rankings. In 2020, Pittsburgh ranked 15 out of a hundred cities in accessibility and amenities in parks for city residents. 


Now, with his departure from the position, Gable says he’ll be glad to no longer deal with snow and ice. 


“I can’t wait for spring to get here, that’s all I can say.”


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.

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