COVID-19 update: Two inmates die, school is closed for rest of academic year

Two inmates associated with the Pike County Correctional Facility have so far died of COVID-19 and seven have tested positive, according to the Pike County Commissioners. Backcountry camps close. New on-site office hours for Pike government buildings begin April 13. School to remain closed for rest of academic year. Senator Toomey tells feds about Paycheck Protection chaos. $2.6 million for NEPA health centers. Pennsylvania is permitted to commandeer supplies. Prisons pivot from uniforms to face masks. Pennsylvania says short-term rental owners ignoring shutdown. Local governments to inspect warehouses. Half-mast flags honor COVID-19 victims. PA stops paying state workers.

10 Apr 2020 | 01:15

Death and illness at the county jail

Two inmates associated with the Pike County Correctional Facility have so far died of COVID-19 and seven have tested positive, according to the Pike County Commissioners.

The Wayne County Coroner confirmed the cause of death of both inmates.

Five of the inmates who have tested positive are under quarantine with all the other inmates housed in their units.

In addition, seven staff members at the jail have tested positive and are currently isolated at home.

Both of the inmates who died were admitted to local hospitals. One died on April 5. The other was furloughed as part of recent mitigation measures implemented by the prison board to reduce the prison population.

Some low-level offenders considered less likely to recidivate were released early or had their bail modified. Some on early release had pre-existing health conditions that put them at high-risk for suffering serious health consequences from COVID-19. A list prepared by the warden was reviewed by the district attorney and county solicitor and approved by the chief probation officer, the president judge, and the prison board.

The commissioners said the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the federal government have jurisdiction over the jail's detainee population, and are working to reduce it. The population had been reduced by 32 detainees by April 2.

Measures now in force at the jail include a requirement that all prisoners and staff wear face masks, regular temperature checks, hand washing, quarantines, and intensive sanitizing.

Backcountry camps close

Effective April 10, all backcountry campsites on the Appalachian Trail and on the Delaware River within Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area are closed until May 22.

The closure is in response to orders by Pennsylvania Gov. Wolf and New Jersey Gov. Murphy and advisories from the federal Centers for Disease Control and local, county, and state public health officials.

Most outdoor spaces in the park remain open and accessible to the public in accordance with the latest federal, state, and local health guidance. Park rangers remain on duty.

As of April 2, the National Park Service closed all trails on the Pocono Environmental Education Center (PEEC) campus in Dingmans Ferry.

On April 7, New Jersey's parks department closed all state and county parks, including nearby High Point State Park and Stokes State Forest. The governor said too many people were congregating in the parks in violation of New Jersey's COVID-19 regulations.

For updates visit nps.gov/coronavirus.

New on-site office hours for Pike government buildings begin April 13

Several Pike County facilities will be under new hours beginning on Monday, April 13.

The Administration Building at 506 Broad Street, in Milford; the Prothonotary’s Office in the Pike County Courthouse at 412 Broad Street, in Milford; and the Community Planning Office and Workforce Development Agency at 837 Route 6, in Shohola will operate on-site from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. by appointment only for essential business, Monday through Friday. The public should call the specific department or office in advance of visiting any of these facilities during on-site hours. Contact information is provided below.

Service beyond on-site hours will be by telephone and email only.

After 12:30 p.m., the public should call the numbers listed below for direction to needed services.

A list of county business that can be conducted online or by phone is available at PikePA.org.

Before coming to any county facility, call first regardless of the time of day. This is to protect the public and county employees.

● Area Agency on Aging – Robin Skibber: 570-775-5500

● Assessment – 570-296-4364

● Board of Elections – Nadine Manzoni: 570-296-3426

● Children & Youth Services – Ginger Refice: 570-296-3446

● District Attorney – Raymond Tonkin: 570-296-3482

● Emergency Management – Tim Knapp: 570-296-6714

● Finance – Sharon Bartsch: 570-296-3538

● Commissioners Office – Gary Orben: 570-296-3569

● Community Planning – Michael Mrozinski: 570-296-3500

● Mapping/ GIS – Gary Orben: 570-296-3420

● Penn State Extension – 570-296-3400

● Prothonotary – Denise Fitzpatrick: 570-296-7231

● Public Defender – Robert Bernathy: 570-296-5266

● Public Safety Department – Bernie Swartwood: 570-296-1911

● Recorder of Deeds – Sharon Schroeder: 570-296-3508

● Tax Claim – Cindy Gehris: 570-296-3407

● Training Center – Jordan Wisniewski: 570-296-1960

● Transportation – Robb Ruiz: 570-296-3408

● Treasurer – John Gilpin: 570-296-3441

● Veterans Services – Brian Evichin: 570-296-3563 or 570-352-8213 (cell)

● Workforce Development – Cindy DeFebo: 570-296-2909

● Courts, District Magistrates, and Probation are operating on limited access. Please contact them at these numbers.

● Courts – Samantha Venditti: 570-296-3556

● Adult/Juvenile Probation – Jeffrey Angradi: 570-296-7412

● Domestic Relations – Jeffrey Angradi: 570-296-3544

● Magisterial District Judge Deborah Fischer: 570-296-8108

● Magisterial District Judge Alan Cooper: 570-296-7726

● Magisterial District Judge Randy Schmalzle: 570-296-9650

● Magisterial District Judge Paul Menditto: 570-828-2880

● Sheriff Kerry Welsh: 570-296-6459

School to remain closed for rest of academic year

Gov. Tom Wolf on April 9 announced that all schools will remain closed for the remainder of the 2019-20 academic year. The governor made the decision in consultation with Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine and Secretary of Education Pedro A. Rivera. Students and families can continue to pick up meals at designated sites.

Although schools are closed, schools are strongly encouraged to provide continuity of education for all students in the most appropriate and accessible ways possible, Wolf said.

The education department is offering free resources to all Pennsylvania schools, including those not currently offering online platforms or that need technology support.

Colleges and universities may not resume in-person instruction or reopen their physical locations until the governor permits them to open or lifts the closure of non-life-sustaining businesses.

Under the state’s directive, schools could begin summer programming on the day after their academic year ends.

Rivera said all re-openings will be contingent on public health guidance provided by the secretary of health and stay-at-home orders issued by the governor.

Senator Toomey tells feds about Paycheck Protection chaos

U.S. Senator Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) on April 8 reached out to the U.S. Department of Treasury and the Small Business Administration (SBA) about dysfunctions in the Paycheck Protection Program that is supposed to help small businesses survive the pandemic.

Lenders have experienced repeated difficulties with SBA technology platforms going offline or slowing to a crawl, Toomey said. They have struggled to reactivate their SBA lender accounts, add new users, or register for the first time. They've not been able to access Amazon Web Services for processing non-SBA lender loans, and lack clarity about how long Paycheck Protection Program funding will last.

Many lenders are reluctant to originate loans for small businesses not currently their customers, said Toomey. Wells Fargo cannot originate loans for many customers because of a cap on asset size imposed by the Federal Reserve.

Toomey said lenders also need more clarity on what documentation, certifications, and eligibility will satisfy loan program requirements.

$2.6 million for NEPA health centers

Three northeastern Pennsylvania health centers have received $2,678,820 from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to help them fight COVID-19, U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright (PA-08) announced on April 8. This is the second round of federal funds awarded for this purpose.

Receiving the money are Wayne Memorial Community Health Centers, $1,111,145; Rural Health Corporation of Northeastern Pennsylvania, $845,870; and Scranton Primary Health Care Center, $721,805.

These awards come from funding authorized by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act (H.R. 748), enacted on March 27. The money will be distributed through the Health Resources and Services Administration and can be used for testing, diagnosis and treatment, and keeping up staffing levels. This money is available immediately, Cartwright said.

In total, Pennsylvania received $37,296,755 from HHS to support 43 health centers.

Cartwright is a member of House Democratic Leadership and the House Committee on Appropriations. Pennsylvania’s 8th Congressional District includes Lackawanna, Wayne, and Pike Counties and portions of Luzerne and Monroe Counties.

PA permitted to commandeer supplies

Pennsylvania emergency management officials will be permitted to commandeer N95 face masks, ventilators, and other crucial medical equipment for use in the fight against COVID-19 under an order signed April 8 by Gov. Tom Wolf.

The order requires private and public health care facilities, manufacturers, and other companies to tabulate their supplies of personal protective gear, drugs, and other medical equipment, and provide an inventory to the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency in five days.

PEMA will make the supplies available to areas of the state hit hardest by the coronavirus outbreak, Wolf's order said.

"``Combatting the pandemic means we all have to work together. That means we need to make the best use of our medical assets to ensure the places that need them the most, have them,'' Wolf said at a video news conference.

Providers and companies whose supplies were confiscated will be reimbursed, according to the order.

Several other states, including New York and Minnesota, have also moved to requisition scarce medical supplies.

The Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania, a trade group, said a statewide, voluntary mutual aid agreement is already in place to deploy critical supplies where they are needed.

President and CEO Andy Carter said the group will work with the Wolf administration to ``ensure that allocation of resources is orderly, effective, and collaborative.''

Prisons pivot from uniforms to face masks

Pennsylvania Correctional Industries stopped production at its garment factories on March 17 to focus on making cloth masks for parole staff, prison workers, and inmates.

“I directed all of our employees and inmates to wear masks,” said Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel. “We didn’t want to take from the community supply, so we began making the masks in-house at several of our state prisons.”

PCI has made 185,136 masks so far. Other COVID-19 related items they're now making daily include 36,000 bars of anti-bacterial soap, 255 gowns, 1,620 packs of disinfectant. Inmates are working 12-hour shifts, six days a week to produce these items.

PCI is a bureau within the department of corrections that employs inmates to produce items for sale to non-profit organizations and government entities located throughout Pennsylvania. It is self-sustaining through the sale of its products and services and receives no taxpayer money.

Pennsylvania says short-term rental owners ignoring shutdown

(AP) Short-term rental property owners in Pennsylvania continue to advertise lodging in defiance of Gov. Tom Wolf's coronavirus shutdown order, administration officials said April 8.

Wolf banned short-term residential rentals last week after state lawmakers in the Pocono Mountains complained that property owners had been trying to entice travelers from virus hotspots New Jersey and New York. But owners are continuing to advertise availability using Airbnb, VRBO and other platforms, "unnecessarily putting the health of the public in even greater jeopardy than is already the case,'' wrote Dennis M. Davin, secretary of the Department of Community and Economic Development.

Davin wrote to Airbnb Inc. and Expedia Group, which owns VRBO, asking them to tell hosts who are violating the shutdown order that they are not allowed to operate. Davin said the administration is seeking voluntary compliance but warned of "significant consequences'' for short-term rental owners if they don't stop advertising availability.

Local governments to inspect warehouses

More than 20 local governments in hard-hit northeastern Pennsylvania are banding together to make sure the warehouse industry and other large businesses are following state health and safety orders amid an alarming rise in virus cases in the region.

Regional code enforcement teams in Luzerne County will perform random inspections of large commercial buildings that remain open during the COVID-19 shutdown, officials announced on April 8. Luzerne County has reported more than 1,100 cases of COVID-19, one of the highest infection rates in the state.

The inspectors will enforce Pennsylvania Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine's order that requires owners of large buildings to enforce social distancing between workers and routinely clean and disinfect high-touch areas. A new website allows workers and others to submit concerns anonymously. More than 20,000 people work in the region's extensive network of industrial parks, raising concerns about the risk of viral spread.

Half-mast flags honor COVID-19 victims

Wolf ordered flags at all state buildings and grounds to be lowered to half-staff until further notice to honor victims of the pandemic. He invited all Pennsylvania residents to follow suit.

"Too many Pennsylvanians have lost their lives to COVID-19, and, unfortunately, many more will die,'' Wolf said in a statement. "This virus prevents us from honoring the dead at traditional gatherings. We cannot have funerals, wakes, or sit shiva. I hope this flag lowering provides some solace to the grieving families and friends."

PA stops paying state workers

Pennsylvania stopped paying about 9,000 state workers whose offices have been closed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Paid leave for state employees whose work locations are closed and who are unable to work remotely ended April 10, according to Gov. Tom Wolf's Office of Administration.

The pay freeze affects about 12% of the state workforce, though individual agencies were hit much harder, with the state departments of Transportation and Revenue halting pay to more than half their employees.

About 5,700 of the affected workers are employed by PennDOT. About 900 work for the Department of Labor & Industry, about 850 work for Revenue, and the remainder are scattered across other agencies.

The frozen Labor & Industry positions are not associated with the state's unemployment compensation program, which has been overwhelmed by hundreds of thousands of claims, officials said.State workers can use paid vacation days, sick leave or compensatory time to continue to receive a paycheck. Otherwise they will be eligible to apply for unemployment, officials said. The state will continue to provide health and life insurance benefits.