- Associated Press - Monday, May 4, 2020

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - Pennsylvania passed 50,000 reported coronavirus infections on Monday, but the rate of spread has slowed and health officials say the state should be in a better position by fall to respond to and contain fresh outbreaks.

More than a month after Gov. Tom Wolf ordered all residents to stay at home and schools and nonessential businesses to close, parts of the state are getting ready to reopen this week.

“We were able to bend and straighten the curve so that we did not have the size of the peak, the surge, that we we were talking about, and it didn’t overwhelm health care systems. I think that is a success,” Wolf’s health secretary, Dr. Rachel Levine, said during a video news conference Monday.

While warning of a “significant potential increase of cases” in the fall, Levine predicted that greatly expanded testing and a new contact tracing program - in which infected people are swiftly isolated and people they came into contact with are quarantined - should help Pennsylvania keep a lid on the virus.

“I think we’ll be in a much better position in the fall to be able to try to prevent any significant outbreaks and as much community spread of COVID-19,” Levine said.



In other coronavirus-related developments:

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NURSING HOMES

A decision is expected this week on whether the Health Department will release data on COVID-19 at individual nursing homes.

Health officials have been under pressure to name long-term care facilities with virus cases, with the state’s chief fiscal watchdog, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, urging greater transparency.

Health Department officials say they have been weighing the public’s right to know against patient privacy and the dictates of state law.

“We’ll be making a decision about that this week,” Levine said Monday.

Statewide, 1,646 residents of nursing homes and personal care homes have died - about two-thirds of the state’s COVID-19 death toll.

Bill Johnston-Walsh, the AARP’s Pennsylvania state director, said his office has received calls from members who are having difficulty getting information about a loved one in a nursing home, and in some cases aren’t even able to speak with them to see if they are OK.

The lack of information is puzzling, he said, given the fact that the nursing home trade associations say they support transparency.

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UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS

People who applied to a new federal benefits program for self-employed and gig-economy workers and others barred from receiving traditional unemployment should begin to see the money next week, state officials said Monday.

About 150,000 workers have applied to the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which is being administered by the state’s unemployment compensation office. The state began accepting applications April 18, but hasn’t been able to pay benefits while it built out the system.

Applicants should be able to start filing weekly claims by the end of this week, and payments should begin a few days later, Labor & Industry Secretary Jerry Oleksiak said Monday.

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FEDERAL AID FOR SCHOOLS

Pennsylvania is applying for $524 million in emergency, one-time federal aid to help schools respond to the pandemic.

The Department of Education said Monday it expects the federal government to approve its application within one week. Schools can use the money to pay for meals for students, technology, cleaning supplies, summer and after-school programs and for other expenses related to the virus.

Under the federal emergency rescue bill approved in March, at least 90% of the money must go to public schools and charter schools. The state Education Department said it plans to use the rest to support things like remote learning.

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PRISON HOT SPOT

The Pennsylvania Corrections Department is dealing with a second COVID-19 outbreak, as 18 employees and 27 inmates have been infected at the State Correctional Institution-Huntingdon.

Overall, according to the prison system, 101 employees and 58 inmates have been sickened, including 48 employees and 28 inmates at SCI-Phoenix, in suburban Philadelphia.

The gym at SCI-Huntingdon has been converted into an infirmary where inmates who test positive for the virus are isolated, Corrections spokeswoman Maria Finn said Monday.

SCI-Huntingdon is in central Pennsylvania.

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PERSONAL PROTECTIVE EQUIPMENT

The state has launched a decontamination system that can sanitize the N95 respirator masks that are in short supply for health care personnel, said Randy Padfield, the director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency.

Some 150 health care institutions around the state have signed agreements to use it to process used masks, Padfield told a state Senate committee hearing. Operated by Ohio-based Battelle, a nonprofit research and development firm, it is located at a former reform school for boys in Delaware County.

It can sanitize up to 80,000 N95 masks each day and a PEMA spokeswoman said each N95 mask can be used up to 20 times. The Federal Emergency Management Agency said it is working to place 60 of the units nationwide.

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CASES

About 825 additional people tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19, according to the Health Department. There were 14 new deaths, raising the statewide total to 2,458.

The number of infections is thought to be far higher than the state’s confirmed case count because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.

For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up in a couple of weeks. Older adults and people with existing health problems are at higher risk of more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death.

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COUNTY’S PLEA

Officials in Delaware County, outside Philadelphia, want the Wolf administration to separate virus infections in nursing homes from virus infections in the rest of the community when deciding on lifting pandemic restrictions.

Delaware County is reporting too many new virus infections to be considered for reopening, driven in part by infections plaguing dozens of nursing homes. But county officials said they view the challenge at nursing homes as separate from how the virus is impacting the wider community, and that the “economic engine” of southeastern Pennsylvania needs to back up and running.

Levine responded Monday that it’s important to include nursing home infections in the overall tally because what happens inside the homes impacts the community in which they are located, and vice versa.

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Rubinkam reported from northeastern Pennsylvania. Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

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