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Wolf suggests virus cases could surge next week

HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Wolf predicted Friday that Pennsylvania will see a surge in new virus cases next week and implored residents to continue to self-isolate to get the worst of the pandemic behind them and allow the state’s economy to gradually open back up.

“If the surge occurs next week, as we suspect it will, and it’s within the range of the capacity of our health care system, that’s going to allow us to shut this shutdown down fast, faster than if this drags on,” Wolf told reporters on a conference call.

Modeling from the University of Washington suggests that Pennsylvania could hit a peak in hospitalizations and deaths late next week before the numbers gradually drift down through the middle of May. Wolf’s health secretary, Dr. Rachel Levine, said there won’t be one peak, and that different regions of the state will peak at different times.

Philadelphia and its suburbs as well as several counties in northeastern Pennsylvania have been hit particularly hard by COVID-19.

Mark Roberts, director of the Public Health Dynamics Laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh, which is doing its own virus modeling, warned Friday that a peak doesn’t mean that Pennsylvania is out of the woods. He said the numbers could very easily spike again if people leave their homes and businesses open up too quickly.

“What I worry about is this notion that, ‘Oh, we’ve hit the peak, we’re finished, we’re done,'” Roberts told The Associated Press.

The state’s mitigation measures, including the indefinite shuttering of schools and nonessential businesses and Wolf’s order for people to remain at home, have helped slow the virus’s spread and make the pandemic more manageable for the health care system, according to Levine.

Other coronavirus developments Friday:

Cases

The Department of Health reported over 1,750 new cases Friday, bringing the statewide total to about 20,000. There were 78 new deaths, tying the previous single-day high, for a statewide toll of 416.

State inmate releases

Wolf authorized the early release of as many as 1,800 inmates from Pennsylvania state prisons in an effort to minimize the spread of the coronavirus.

The plan is similar to what other states and some Pennsylvania counties have undertaken or considered, and it comes after talks broke down with Republican lawmakers who hold a majority in the state Legislature.

Wolf’s office said releasing inmates will save lives, help stop the spread of the virus and avoid overwhelming Pennsylvania’s already-burdened health care system.

“We can reduce our non-violent prison population and leave fewer inmates at risk for contracting COVID-19 while maintaining public safety with this program,” Wolf, a Democrat, said in a statement.

The state’s district attorneys association is backing the move, although a Huntingdon County judge questioned Wolf’s legal authority. Some prisoner rights advocates say Wolf’s order doesn’t go far enough, while the corrections officers’ union criticized Wolf’s move as “haphazard” and said there aren’t enough parole agents to handle releases under normal conditions, let alone this situation.

The releases, to halfway houses or home confinement, could start as early as Tuesday, according to the governor’s office.

The plan allows the release of inmates serving time for nonviolent offenses who are within nine months of scheduled release, or within 12 months for those considered at heightened risk from the virus.

The temporary reprieve does not apply to inmates incarcerated for certain crimes, including violent crimes, crimes committed with a firearm, drug trafficking and sexual offenses. And it does not apply to inmates who have been denied parole or convicted of any offense while incarcerated.

Pennsylvania’s state prisons hold about 44,000 inmates. The Wolf administration said approximately 1,500 to 1,800 inmates are eligible, although some may not be able to be released because of challenges involving housing, health care or behavioral health treatment.

House Republican leaders had sought to cap any release of inmates at 450.

Wolf’s executive order said the Department of Corrections will discuss each eligible inmate with the courts and prosecutors.

Inmates given reprieve are to be monitored similarly to parolees and supervised by parole agents, the administration said. They would return to prison to complete any remaining portion of their sentences when the order expires, it said.

The Wolf administration has disclosed that 11 inmates at Phoenix state prison, in Montgomery County, have contracted the virus.

The prison system has been on inmate quarantine since March 29, with inmates being fed in their cells and all movement being controlled to achieve social distancing.

Meat plants shut down

At least four meat processing plants in Pennsylvania are shut down, including one facility outside the hard-hit city of Hazleton, where more than 160 workers have tested positive, according to a union official.

Cargill Meat Solutions, which employs about 900, has been closed since Tuesday. The 230,000-square-foot plant in Luzerne County packages beef and pork products destined for supermarket meat cases.

Also shuttered are JBS’ beef processing facility in Souderton, the largest plant of its kind east of Chicago; Empire Kosher Poultry in Mifflintown; and CTI Foods in King of Prussia, said Wendell W. Young IV, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776. Those plants reported smaller COVID-19 outbreaks.

Young said a beloved shop steward at the JBS plant, Enock Benjamin, succumbed to the virus after spending weeks “doing everything he could to keep everyone safe.”

Long line at food bank

Motorists lined up for over a mile for emergency groceries offered Friday at a drive-up site run by a Pittsburgh food bank.

The Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank helped 1,300 people but had to turn some away at the three-hour event, spokeswoman Beth Burrell said via email.

Long lines have been routine at emergency food giveaways held across the region in recent weeks. The food bank said it plans to hold additional events Monday in Duquesne and Tuesday in Butler.

Many people are seeking help for the first time, Charlese McKinney, a director at the Great Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, told KDKA-TV.

“They had jobs, they were able to care for their families, but their hours have been reduced or their jobs have been furloughed for a time being,” McKinney said.

Cash for hospitals

Pennsylvania’s beleaguered hospitals and health networks will receive a cash infusion from the state and federal governments to help fortify them against the COVID-19 crisis, officials said Friday.

Nearly 13,000 health care providers statewide will share $1.25 billion in initial funding from the CARES Act, U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey said. The law, enacted last month, authorizes $100 billion in grants to U.S. hospitals and other health providers buckling under the strain of pandemic response.

Additionally, Wolf announced a $450 million low-interest loan program that will provide hospitals with working capital to pay for clinicians, medical supplies and personal protective equipment.

“We cannot allow any of our hospitals to become bankrupt,” Wolf said Friday.

Immigration detainees

After granting the federal government a three-day delay, a federal judge has gone ahead with his order to release 22 immigrant detainees considered to be at “imminent risk of death or serious injury” from COVID-19.

Friday’s ruling affects 20 detainees in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody at jails in York and Pike counties. Two had already been let go.

Judge John E. Jones ordered the remaining detainees to be released from civil detention pending resolution of their cases, further action from the court or until Wolf lifts his COVID-19 state of emergency order.

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