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More than 3,000 people have died from COVID-19 in Allegheny County

Keith Srakocic

On today’s episode of The Confluence: Allegheny County has surpassed 3,000 deaths due to COVID-19, but case rates have fallen; while the region is approaching pre-pandemic employment levels, analysis from the Allegheny Conference on Community Development suggests it may be a while until certain sectors have fully recovered; and we speak with the executive director of Industrial Arts Workshop of Hazelwood, which is giving new life to locks removed from the Clemente Bridge.

Allegheny County hits a milestone in COVID-19 deaths
(0:00 - 5:24)

Last week, Allegheny County hit a somber milestone with more than 3,000 deaths due to COVID-19. However, case numbers have been steadily declining overall.

“About a month ago this time we were seeing 3,000 new cases a day. I checked this morning; it's down to below 500 a day,” says Sarah Boden, WESA Health and Science Reporter. “Also, the percentage of positive PCR tests has dropped about 20 points in the past month, and we're also seeing lower hospitalizations.”

Boden says the decline in cases should be tempered with the realization that many people are still unvaccinated. The County Health Department has reported that January 2022 was the third-most deadly month of the pandemic.

“Way more people were infected this winter [with COVID-19]. There was a week last month, in fact, where almost 2% of Allegheny County's population had tested positive for COVID, and that's excluding at-home tests,” says Boden. “However, last winter, more people were dying, even though the total number of people infected with COVID was lower.”

Boden says the higher mortality rate for the winter for 2020 to 2021 can likely be attributed to the circulation of a more deadly variant at the time, and different circumstances. Vaccines are now available to reduce the risk of severe illness, and there are more accessible treatments for the disease.

Boden adds that those who cannot be vaccinated, like children under the age of five, are still at risk. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced Friday it was postponing a meeting about emergency use authorization for the Pfizer vaccine for children six months through four years old. Meanwhile, many children five to 11 years old are still unvaccinated.

The region’s economy is slowly recovering, but leisure and hospitality industries are struggling to fill jobs
(5:38 - 13:51)

The unemployment rate for the seven-county Pittsburgh region soared to 17.1% in April 2020 as the pandemic shook the economy. The latest jobless rate for the region is 5.3%, but the progress has slowed a bit in recent months.

“We saw the region shed roughly 200,000 jobs in two months between February and April. And, you know, I think there was a lot of concern about how long it would take for that sudden shock and trauma to the region to dissipate,” explains Jim Futrell, Vice President of Market Research and Analysis for the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, which has released a new report on the region’s economy.

Since the onset of the pandemic in the U.S., employment has mostly bounced back, and Futrell says the slow growth could be attributed in part to the region’s slow population growth.

Futrell also says the region’s labor force has shrunk, from older workers deciding to retire, to parents assuming childcare responsibilities, and front-line workers opting out of an unsafe job.

Futrell says the declining labor force is the region’s biggest concern.

“Hopefully, some of those people who are currently not in the labor force will, you know, as weather warms up and caseloads fall, will decide to come back into the labor force,” says Futrell. “That's, I think, our best near-term hope. I think then there are other things we need to do, like try to attract more people to the region, retain more college students.”

The industries still struggling to fill jobs are leisure and hospitality. Futrell predicts a rebound in business travel will boost those businesses the most.

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

‘Love locks’ removed from the Clemente bridge will be recycled into art
(13:56 - 22:30)

Starting today, the Roberto Clemente Bridge (Sixth Street Bridge) will be closed to vehicle, bicycle, and pedestrian traffic until December of next year for a scheduled $34 million rehabilitation project.

But when it reopens, something will be missing: approximately 11,000 love locks attached by couples to the bridge's railings. These locks are not getting dumped, but rather, they're getting a second life at Industrial Arts Workshop of Hazelwood, a nonprofit artistic literacy organization in Pittsburgh.

The Workshop teaches welding and art to local teenagers, and the locks will eventually be turned, with the help of workshop students, into a piece of public art.

“Recycling materials can be a lot of fun because there's a history and a back story, even before you start a new invention,” says Tim Kaulen, the Workshop’s executive director. “I would love to hear from people who put their locks out there and what it meant to them.”

Kaulen says he appreciates that these locks are coming from a public art form already, having been placed on a bridge. Bringing all of the removed locks together in a new form, however, poses its own challenge.

“All of those locks are of many different compositions and qualities and shapes and sizes, … so it will take some ingenuity to find a way to create a medium and a method that allows for the original composition of the pieces to be somewhat preserved and celebrated,” says Kaulen.

He adds that recycling these locks into art could open the door for more conversations about how the city can repurpose materials and tell new stories.

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in Monday to Thursday at 9 a.m. and 7:30 p.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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