Virus Outbreak Pennsylvania Food Pantry

Maureen Pascal helps Ernest Taylor and Denise Phillips load a shopping cart with food at the Al Beech/West Side Food Pantry, Tuesday, March 24, 2020, in Kingston, Pa. Normally the pantry is set up like a store, but due to the coronavirus pandemic it is operating as a drive-thru pantry. (Aimee Dilger/The Times Leader via AP)

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Hospitals, nursing homes and child care centers are asking Pennsylvania state government for more money to avoid closures amid a surge of coronavirus -related demands on staffing and equipment, and Pennsylvania's corrections officers' union wants the prison system to stop all transfers of inmates.

The demands came as the new cornavirus continued to spread in Pennsylvania, with the state reporting more than 200 more cases and another death.

Meanwhile, more businesses are challenging Gov. Tom Wolf's order closing the physical locations of businesses determined to be "non-life-sustaining."

In the meantime, Wolf has ordered schools closed through at least April 6 and ordered 5.5 million people in the state's hardest-hit counties to stay home, other than going to work at a business that's still open or another errand involving health and safety.

A look at coronavirus-related developments in Pennsylvania:

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CASES

The state Department of Health on Tuesday reported more than 200 new cases, with the total to date now exceeding 850.

Allegheny County reported one more death, bringing the statewide total to at least seven. The victim was a woman in her late 70s and the county medical examiner was handling the case, the county said.

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PRISON TRANSFERS

Larry Blackwell, the president of the 11,000-member corrections officers' union, said Tuesday that moving inmates between prisons risks unnecessarily spreading the virus between institutions, where it will be very difficult to stop it from spreading to other inmates and employees.

"The governor has called for all non-essential movement to halt, and this isn't essential," Blackwell said. "And the governor has the authority to shut down the movement of these prisoners. The counties, the state, let's just freeze everything until we figure out what's going on."

No case of the coronavirus has been discovered in the state prison system where roughly 45,000 inmates are housed and 16,000 people work, prison and union officials say.

Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said through a spokeswoman that halting all transfers is not a "realistic plan at this point" and he urged corrections staff across Pennsylvania to "pull together" against the virus.

"We are doing everything we can to minimize the exposure to the system as a whole, but we are a system — and each facility in the system has a role," Wetzel said.

The Department of Corrections has shut down some routine transfers between prisons, according to prison and union officials.

But the department is emptying Retreat state prison in northeastern Pennsylvania of hundreds of inmates by transferring them to other prisons, and it announced Monday that it will use Retreat to receive new male commitments from county jails and male parole violators.

Other prisons, previously, had been used as reception facilities. Retreat, ultimately, is slated to be closed.

At the federal level, some members of Congress are calling for the Bureau of Prisons to stop transferring prisoners between institutions, at least until the inmates have been tested for the coronavirus.

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LEGAL ACTIONS

Several more businesses have filed a legal challenge to Gov. Wolf's order closing the physical locations of businesses determined to be "non-life-sustaining."

A petition filed in Commonwealth Court seeks to have Wolf's shutdown order thrown out. The plaintiffs are a law firm, a laundromat, a timber company and a golf course, all of which appeared on the governor's initial list of businesses that were to shut down as of Thursday night.

The Wolf administration has since revised the list, relaxing its blanket closure of law offices and placing laundromats and timber companies on the "life sustaining" list, allowing them to stay open.

But the lawsuit said Wolf "quite simply made up these categories and their terminology out of whole cloth," and alleges his shutdown order and subsequent revisions "caused mass confusion and disturbance throughout Pennsylvania."

Wolf has already beat back two other legal challenges to his authority to order businesses to close.

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HOSPITALS, NURSING HOMES AND CHILD CARE CENTERS

Hospitals, nursing homes and child care centers are pushing for emergency aid from state lawmakers and Wolf to help keep them afloat during the pandemic, and warning of closures without it.

There is a "legitimate, credible threat" that some hospitals, without financial support from either the federal government or the state government, will close, said Andy Carter, president and CEO of the Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania.

"It's the sheer scale of the COVID-19 outbreak unfolding now that has the healthcare community saying, 'we need government help,'" Carter said.

The fund would help hospitals build surge capacity, retrofit critical-care units for highly infectious COVID-19 patients, hire more clinicians, pay for housing, establish on-site childcare facilities for healthcare workers and purchase protective gear, Carter told reporters on a conference call.

He did not provide a dollar figure, but said "we know it's going to be an extraordinary amount to match the size of the potential surge of care that we will be providing."

Carter said hospitals are scrambling to obtain enough protective gear to meet demand. Some facilities could run out of masks and other equipment in a matter of days or even hours as they become flooded with COVID-19 patients, he said.

The federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which was signed into law by President Donald Trump last week, provides approximately $1.5 billion additional Medicaid dollars for Pennsylvania, nursing home organizations say.

Two nursing home associations, LeadingAge PA and the Pennsylvania Health Care Association, and labor unions that help staff the homes requested help getting protective equipment, a 3% increase in reimbursement rates and a minimum sum of $290 million to nursing homes in emergency aid.

They also asked for emergency aid to offer paid sick leave to all staff who have exhausted their sick leave benefits.

Child care advocates said more than $100 million is needed to make up for the tuition and co-pays that the centers aren't collecting, and pass a law protecting the centers from coronavirus-related lawsuits.

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BUSINESS CLOSURES

Pennsylvania State police say troopers issued 27 warnings, but no citations, based on Wolf's directive that businesses deemed not life-sustaining close down their physical locations during the first day of enforcement on Monday.

The state police commissioner, Col. Robert Evanchick, said Tuesday that the overwhelming majority of people and businesses were complying voluntarily with the order.

Other forms of enforcement will follow the warnings, if needed, Evanchick said.

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INTERSTATE REST STOPS REOPENING

Motorists of all types, not just truck drivers, are getting access to indoor facilities at 23 interstate rest stops across Pennsylvania.

The reopened indoor bathrooms are on interstates 79, 80, 81 and 84, the state Transportation Department said.

The Associated Press

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