Pennsylvania announces first coronavirus death; 53 new cases confirmed statewide

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UPDATED: 7:59 p.m.

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) —Pennsylvania announced its first coronavirus-related death on Wednesday.

The Wolf administration confirmed it's an adult from Northampton County. This individual was being treated at a hospital.

Wolf’s office did not release any other information about the patient.

Today the @GovernorTomWolf Administration confirmed the state’s first #COVID19 related death, an adult from Northampton County. This individual was being treated at a hospital.There is no additional information available about the patient at this time. pic.twitter.com/Cn1V1J1Alw

— PA Department of Health (@PAHealthDept) March 18, 2020

“Today’s is just the first death of what will become many. And our only hope is to keep our hospitals from being overwhelmed so our medical professionals can do the most they can. We need businesses to follow our guidance and heed our mitigation efforts if we wanna save lives. We need to stay home if we wanna save lives. We need to work together if we wanna save lives,” Wolf said, delivering the message from his own home in York County to demonstrate his point.

Current cases across Pennsylvania

Updates Wednesday from the Pennsylvania Department of Health and the City of Philadelphia confirmed 53 additional positive cases of COVID-19 in the state, bringing the statewide total to at least 149 reported from commercial, hospital and state labs.

County-specific information and a statewide map are available at the Department of Health website

All people are either in isolation at home or being treated at the hospital.

#COVID19 Update:Today (3/18/20 at 12:00 am), there are 37 additional positive cases of COVID-19 in PA, bringing the statewide total to 133.All are either in isolation at home or being treated at the hospital.Latest info: https://t.co/7pzosEXhEX

— PA Department of Health (@PAHealthDept) March 18, 2020

"Pennsylvanians have a very important job right now: stay calm; stay home and stay safe. We have seen case counts continue to increase and the best way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is stay home," Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine said in a statement released by the department on Wednesday. 

There are 1,187 patients who have tested negative. With commercial labs being the primary testing option for most Pennsylvanians, data is not available on the total number of tests pending.

In accordance with the CDC, for the next eight weeks, it is recommended that large events are canceled or postponed. The federal government, meanwhile, has recommended against gatherings larger than 10 people.

At a press event at City Hall, Health Commissioner Dr. Tom Farley confirmed 16 new cases, bringing the Philadelphia total to 34.

Chair of the City Commissioners Lisa Deeley also asked Gov. Tom Wolf to postpone Pennsylvania's April 28 presidential primary.

Wolf has has ordered schools to close statewide and non-essential businesses across the state to shut down to help prevent the spread of the new virus.

A member of Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court is now in self-quarantine. One of the children of state Supreme Court Justice David Wecht tested presumptively positive for coronavirus after returning from overseas studies. Wecht has now self-quarantined along with his family.

Testing sites

The Department of Health and the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency are in the process of organizing public testing sites, one in Philadelphia and one in Montgomery County, in hard-hit southeastern Pennsylvania.

Montgomery County is setting up a drive-thru facility, but officials stress it is not open to the public just yet. 

Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoosh said they’ve been working for several days to expand testing capabilities.

“In preparation, we have been working with our partners to establish a drive-thru testing location in Upper Dublin Township,” she said.

The facility is being set up on the Temple University Ambler campus.

Some hospitals are operating specimen-collecting sites, while others are operating their own testing laboratories.

Children's Hospital of Philadelphia is able to test for COVID-19, and Geisinger Health System can test its own patients; Health Network Laboratories/Lehigh Valley Health Network will be able to test in the next couple of days.

Creating more space for patients

Pennsylvania Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said the state is already exploring options for non-traditional space in the event that coronavirus pandemic overtaxes the capacity of hospitals in the Philadelphia area. 

Officials are already in discussions about the use of mobile hospitals, unused buildings in the community, hotels, event spaces, and other non-traditional sites that can be converted to care for those who are ill.

“I would expect that there will be a need for some novel and creative ideas about non-traditional space,” Levine said. “I don't have specifics at this time. We're considering all alternatives and are working with the hospitals and health systems about their ideas of what would be best to decompress hospitals.”

Drug refills for seniors

Pennsylvania seniors who get their drugs through the PACE program can now apply for refills sooner as part of the Department of Aging's response to the coronavirus outbreak.

Department Secretary Robert Torres said seniors will no longer have to reach a certain use threshold for their prescriptions before applying for refills.

"The PACE program is making an exception to their policy that requires enrollees to use 75% of their supply before refills will be reimbursed. However, this exception will not apply for opioids or other controlled substances,” Torres said. 

He said those requests will be handled on a case by case basis.

To apply for the refill exception, you must have the pharmacy contact PACE on your behalf.

He also encouraged seniors to stay inside and ask for free home delivery service from their pharmacies.

PennDOT suspensions

PennDOT has suspended all operations on roads in the Philadelphia region.

All routine road maintenance work, including filling potholes, in Philadelphia and the suburban counties, has been suspended for now because of Wolf’s directives to mitigate spreading the virus, says PennDOT’s Brad Rudolph. 

Rudolph, however, says PennDOT crews are on standby to respond to emergencies."A bridge strike, some kind of damage overnight to a structure or the roadway that needs to be repaired — we do have crews in place across the region to deal with those type of situations," he said.All construction work on major projects such as Route 422 and Route 202 IS also suspended for now.However, he says back-office PennDOT engineers and planners are continuing to work from home and do what they can to keep various projects on the planning and development track during this period.

Amtrak service

Amtrak said it is suspending its Keystone Service starting Wednesday, and all Pennsylvanian trains on Thursday. The Keystone runs between Harrisburg and New York City, and the Pennsylvanian runs between New York City and Pittsburgh.

Amtrak cited a state mandate in Pennsylvania. The state Department of Transportation said it is focused on slowing the spread of COVID-19.

Pennsylvania Turnike

The Pennsylvania Turnpike has suspended the use of cash and credit cards at interchanges, and now it is ending fast-food service and inside dining service at all 17 service plazas along its 552-mile roadway.

Inside restrooms are closed, although portable toilets and hand-washing stations are available. Gas stations and convenience stores are open.

Unemployment

The Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry is relaxing some of its unemployment compensation benefits restrictions amid high call volumes to its service centers.

The department said Tuesday that it has suspended the weeklong wait to start receiving benefits and temporarily waived work search and work registration requirements.

The department is also advising applicants that they may be eligible if their employer temporarily closes or goes out of business, reduces their hours or tells them not to work, self-quarantine or isolate because of the coronavirus.

Statewide assistance

A rapidly increasing number of people in Pennsylvania will be out of work as the coronavirus crisis continues. State officials emphasize there are special programs to help people in dire need.

“If you are within 10 days of your oil tank running out, or if you've received a shutoff notice or are currently shut off by the utility company, you can qualify for the LIHEAP,” or Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, said Cathy Buhrig, director of health and welfare at the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services.

She said people can also apply for expedited food assistance, or SNAP benefits, which they can get within days of submitting an application.

Buhrig said they are taking that same approach when it comes to Medicare programs.

“If folks indicate to us that they have an imminent medical need, we can make sure that those applications are processed quickly to ensure people get the medical care that they need to have,” she explained.

Buhrig said people should use their MY COMPASS account on the app or online to apply and submit all of their information.

“Because of the COVID emergency, we are trying to limit the amount of exposure folks have. We are encouraging folks to use those electronic methods to get information to us.”

There are also cash assistance, medical and heating bill programs available.

Price gouging

The Pennsylvania attorney general's office says it's fielded nearly 1,200 complaints about price gouging related to the coronavirus outbreak.

The agency said it has filed 45 complaints and 34 cease-and-desist letters and subpoenas as a result. The office is taking complaints through the email address, pricegouging@attorneygeneral.gov.

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KYW Newsradio's Mark Abrams, Jim Melwert, Justin Udo and Eric Walter, and the Associated Press, contributed to this report.