Virus Outbreak Pennsylvania

A federal medical station is set up at Temple University's Liacouras Center in Philadelphia, Monday, March 30, 2020, to accommodate an influx in hospital patients due to the coronavirus outbreak. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Inmates throughout the Pennsylvania state prison system will largely be confined to their cells to prevent an outbreak of COVID-19 after one tested positive for the disease, the state Department of Corrections announced Monday.

Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said he took action after an inmate at State Correctional Institution at Phoenix in Montgomery County contracted the new virus.

"Quarantining the entire system is in the best interest of our employees and our inmates," Wetzel said in a news release. "This is essentially forced social distancing. We must take this step to contain the virus to one facility and to keep it from spreading throughout the system."

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As of 10 p.m. Sunday, inmates are only allowed out of their cells for video visits, phone calls and access to the law library.

The Corrections Department incarcerates nearly 44,600 inmates in 25 state prisons.

Meanwhile, the state Supreme Court was asked Monday to order the release of some inmates from county jails to help reduce the virus's spread. The county jail system isn't impacted by the Department of Corrections quarantine.

More on developments in Pennsylvania:

More cases

The number of new COVID-19 cases reported by the state Health Department on Monday rose by 693 to nearly 4,100. There were 11 new deaths, bringing Pennsylvania's total to 49.

Officials said those diagnosed are hospitalized or in isolation.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up in a couple of weeks. Older adults and people with existing health problems are at higher risk of more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death.

ACLU sues to reduce jail population

A petition filed with the state's high court by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania said tight inmate quarters, a lack of sanitation, and a limited ability to treat and quarantine people suspected of having COVID-19 presents an "extraordinary public health risk" to inmates, staff and surrounding communities.

Once the virus enters a jail, it is "virtually certain to spread like wildfire through the prison population, correctional staff and into the nearby community," the petition said.

The Supreme Court was asked to order the release of inmates at high risk of serious illness from COVID-19, and those nearing the end of their sentences, eligible for work release or held on cash bail before trial.

The plaintiffs are the Pennsylvania Prison Society, an advocacy group, along with five inmates, including two who say they have health conditions that elevate their risk of serious illness from the virus.

Other states, including New Jersey, have taken steps to reduce their jail populations, as have Allegheny, Lackawanna and Lancaster counties in Pennsylvania.

The legal action was taken as Pike County officials announced Sunday that a staffer at the jail tested positive for COVID-19. Inmates who had direct contact are under quarantine.

Unemployment surges again

Pennsylvania set another record for unemployment filings last week, surpassing 400,000, as businesses shut down and laid off workers to slow the spread of the virus.

Daily figures posted by Gov. Tom Wolf's administration showed 405,000 unemployment compensation benefits filings in the seven days through Saturday. That beat the record set a week earlier at 379,000, which itself was highest in the nation and twice the number of the nearest state.

Unemployment filings surged after Wolf on March 16 asked nonessential businesses statewide to close their physical locations, and later mandated it. Schools are closed through at least April 9.

The emergency relief bill signed last week by President Donald Trump adds 13 weeks of benefits — from 26 to 39 in Pennsylvania — plus $600 a week in benefits. It also expands eligibility to workers who don't pay into the system and normally aren't eligible, but who lost jobs due to the virus pandemic.

Pittsburgh: Stop crowding parks

Pittsburgh is closing its public basketball courts and overlooks because too many people are crowding them and flouting social distancing guidelines.

The city announced Monday that parks department employees are removing basketball hoops from city parks and closing Mount Washington overlooks.

Additionally, police will patrol city parks to break up soccer games and other group sports that have been banned during the pandemic.

The parks remain open, and city officials encouraged residents to use them to get exercise — as long as they stay away from each other.

The city also warned parents taking children to shuttered playgrounds that the equipment might not be safe because the virus can live on surfaces for several days.

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