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Dept. of Corrections Will Use Sewage Monitoring To Help Detect Rates Of COVID-19 As Prison Visitations Resume

Jacqueline Larma

On today’s program: Pennsylvania Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel explains how the department is bringing back in-person visits at state prisons, and the preventative measures in place to reduce COVID-19 outbreaks; the participant in a breakthrough study explains how he can ‘feel’ some sensations through his robotic arm; and a new program is helping people earn more based on their skills, and not just education.

Pennsylvania DOC Secretary John Wetzel says sewage monitoring will help detect rates of COVID-19 as prison visitations resume
(0:00 — 6:45)

For 14 months, inmates in Pennsylvania’s state prisons have not had in-person visits because of the pandemic, but now outside visits are resuming at five correctional facilities: State Correctional Institution (SCI) Laurel Highlands, SCI Waymart, SCI Muncy, SCI Cambridge Springs, and the Quehanna Boot Camp.

“Overall in our system, we’re at 71% vaccination rate,” says Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections John Wetzel. “I think it’s time to start slowly getting back to normal.”

Wetzel says all inmates and staff have been offered COVID-19 vaccines, and facilities with the highest vaccination rates are the ones resuming in-person visits first.

The department is testing wastewater for RNA that indicates the presence of COVID-19 and using that information to guide individual testing, and assess if cases are potentially rising because of visitations.

In resuming in-person visits, prisons are offering limited time slots to manage the number of people coming in, but Wetzel says virtual visits are still available.

“We haven’t shut down the Zoom visits, as a matter of fact we did over 300,000 visits during COVID, and it’s available in every housing unit,” says Wetzel.

Getting back a sense of feeling with a robotic arm
(6:48 — 13:29)

You might not think about how much of a role tactical senses play in your everyday life. The sensation of a glass of iced tea, letting you know to grip it tighter because of condensation.

For those with robotic-prosthetic arms, they don’t know if a glass is hot or cold, nor can they feel the weight of the object in their limb.

A robotic arm developed by University of Pittsburgh bioengineers can now generate the sensation of touch making it easier for the person to manipulate a robotic arm.

Tiny electrode arrays were implanted in the motor cortex of participant Nathan Copeland’s brain with signals that move in two directions: from the brain to the robotic arm and hand, and once contact is made, from the hand back to the brain. Copeland was injured in a car accident that left him with limited mobility in his arms.

“The main result of the paper I think is that he spent less time positioning the hand near the object and being sure that he had it in his hand before he picked it up and moved it,” says Dr. Jennifer Collinger, co-senior author of the study published in Science and an associate professor in Pitt’s Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. “That really mimics the way our body naturally works for an able bodied person.”

Copeland says participating came out of an interest in the science, but also a feeling of obligation that he could help others by participating.

“I knew the criteria to be eligible to participate was so small, that I kind of felt like it was my duty to push the science forward and help people in the future that end up in my kind of situation.”

Right now, he says not all sensations feel natural, but they’re still an improvement.

“The sensations I feel are completely dependent on which electrodes they stimulate, and they can range from pressures to tingles, sometimes warmth or like a tapping, and also where on my hand I feel the sensation depends on which electrode they stimulate,” says Copeland.

Improving employment prospects and income based on skills
(13:35 — 18:00)

The middle class has been shrinking for decades as income growth continues to favor top earners, while wages for people without a four-year college degree have fallen.

90.5 WESA’s An-Li Herring reports research suggests a way out of that downward cycle: assigning more value to workers’ skills than to their education level.

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.

Julia Zenkevich reports on Allegheny County government for 90.5 WESA. She first joined the station as a production assistant on The Confluence, and more recently served as a fill-in producer for The Confluence and Morning Edition. She’s a life-long Pittsburgher, and attended the University of Pittsburgh. She can be reached at
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