Pennsylvania slashes COVID-19 death toll by 201

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio/AP) — The Pennsylvania Department of Health slashed the state's COVID-19 death toll on Thursday by 201, saying probable deaths it had previously included in the count require more investigation.

The death toll now stands at 1,421, down from 1,622 reported a day earlier.

The number of deaths confirmed by a positive virus test actually rose overnight by 69, to 1,394. But Health Secretary Rachel Levine said Thursday that 270 probable deaths that had been added to the death toll in recent days have been removed pending further investigation.

State health officials had recently changed the way they count COVID-19 deaths, resulting in a doubling of the state's death toll in just four days. The health department is now including probable deaths in the tally. A probable death is one in which a coroner or medical examiner listed COVID-19 as the cause or contributing cause, but the deceased was not tested for the virus.

Officials have said they are trying to reconcile data provided by hospitals, health care systems, county and municipal health departments and long-term care living facilities with the department's own records. Some county coroners have accused the state Department of Health of botching the numbers.

Statewide, more than 1,369 additional people tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19, bringing the statewide total to more than 37,000, the health department reported Thursday.

Southeastern counties may be last to reopen

Gov. Tom Wolf conceded that southeastern Pennsylvania could be among the last in line under his plan to reopen the commonwealth.

The governor answered questions from media outlets across the state during a Thursday conference call about his phased-in reopening approach, which he announced Wednesday night.

Wolf said any reopening would depend on a decline in COVID-19 cases, and it would be broken up into three phases, like a traffic light: red, yellow and green. 

The entire state is currently red. A stay-at-home order is in place with only essential businesses open.

Yesterday I announced the phases of my plan to gradually reopen Pennsylvania.Currently, all 67 counties are in the most strict phase of my plan — the red phase. As conditions improve, counties and regions will have fewer restrictions.Details: https://t.co/vruI34s7cH. pic.twitter.com/4zlqIi8NNg

— Governor Tom Wolf (@GovernorTomWolf) April 23, 2020

Moving forward, Wolf said regions of the state with lower counts of COVID-19 cases can go to yellow.

“The initial benchmark we’re setting is for the population to have an average of less than 50 cases per 100,000 individuals over the course of 14 days in order to return to work,” Wolf said Wednesday night. “But we’re also going to need to look at areas like testing rates, the ability to investigate cases, contact tracing capabilities and proximity to high-risk settings.”

The target date for parts of northwest and north central Pennsylvania is May 8, but state health officials are still studying which counties that might include.

“We’re being driven by the statistics of this virus,” Wolf said. “If the virus is saying, ‘Hey, I’m feeling right at home here in Philadelphia,’ then Philadelphia’s not ready to be open. And, I think that’s the kind of call we’re going to have to make.”

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution in his plan, and decisions will be guided by conditions on the ground in a specific county and a state testing program, which officials are still developing. What’s best for Philadelphia may not be the same for places like Cameron County, he noted.

“We don’t want to say, ‘OK, because you’re part of a state that includes places like Philadelphia, we’re going to make sure that you are also under strict orders to stay at home.’ I think Pennsylvania is big enough and diverse enough that we can actually do this in a phased and reasonable way,” he added.

“We haven’t decided where we’re going to do this, but I’m pretty sure the southeastern part of the state will be among the last places to reopen.”

Immediate test results still not available

Health Secretary Levine said it could be six months before they have a coronavirus test that gives reliable, immediate results.

While the Abbott test can give results in about 15 minutes, the cartridges can only be used once, and they’re hard to get. 

“It has a very high false-negative rate,” she added. “So if you’re going to do a screening test, having a false-negative rate is really difficult because the test could be negative falsely and that could give you a false sense of security.”

During a state Senate committee hearing, lawmakers asked Levine why, if more than half of the deaths in Pennsylvania are in long-term care facilities, they aren’t focusing more on testing employees at those facilities.

Levine said there are 2,500 long-term care facilities across the state. They don’t have the capability to test the thousands of employees daily, or even weekly. Even if they could, she said results take so long to get back, it wouldn’t really be helpful.

“The test really tells whether you have the virus right now. And it takes at least 24 hours at best to get the results back,” she said.

And since the virus moves so quickly, by the time you receive a result, the worker may already be infected.

“It’s hard to justify using all of our resources to do that in the 2,500 facilities across Pennsylvania if a negative test could be positive the next day,” she continued.

Levine noted her mother is in a nursing home, so she understands the concerns, adding the administration is open to any ideas.

Curbside liquor sales

Pennsylvania's state-owned liquor stores have processed about 25,000 curbside orders since that program began on Monday, for sales totaling about $2.3 million, the agency said.

The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board said Thursday that its online order system also continues to expand its reach, from about 4,000 orders a day last week to more than 33,000 daily since Saturday, with five-day sales of more than $3 million.

More than 100 of the agency's nearly 600 stores are currently filling online orders for delivery as well as curbside orders by appointment.

The online ordering system has been able to meet just a fraction of the public demand in Pennsylvania, where the stores retail nearly all hard liquor and much of the wine. Before the COVID-19 shutdown, the liquor stores handled about 180,000 transactions a day.

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KYW Newsradio’s Mark Abrams and Jim Melwert, as well as the Associated Press, contributed to this report.