Jobless claims swamp Pennsylvania amid rise in virus cases
HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Pennsylvania rose by 50% to more than 1,600 cases, while record numbers of state residents filed for unemployment compensation, the most in the nation, according to figures released Thursday.
The state Department of Health also said five more people stricken with coronavirus died on Wednesday, bringing the state’s death toll to 16.
Pennsylvanians have filed about 650,000 unemployment compensation claims over the past 11 days as Gov. Tom Wolf unveiled an order for thousands of “non-life-sustaining” businesses to shut down to help stop the spread of the coronavirus.
In the seven days through Saturday, Pennsylvanians filed about 379,000 claims, smashing the record for an entire week in the state. That was also the most in the nation by far, doubling the nearest state as business groups complain that Wolf’s shutdown order was more restrictive than those in other states.
In the four days since then, Pennsylvanians have filed another 271,000, putting the state on course to break last week’s record.
Thursday claims were still coming in and Wolf acknowledged that Pennsylvania is “really the epicenter” of the national jobless crisis caused by the virus.
Wolf’s administration contends that Pennsylvania was “one of the first and largest states to take action to save lives and stop the spread of COVID-19 with aggressive mitigation efforts,” spurring an increase in unemployment compensation filings.
Wolf’s Department of Labor and Industry “actively urges people to file online” instead of calling, which results in more applications being filed quicker, the agency said.
Plus, workers in other large states hit hard by the coronavirus might not need to file as quickly since they have access to some combination of mandatory paid sick leave, short-term disability or paid family and medical leave, Wolf’s administration said.
On Thursday night, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the Philadelphia school board voted to authorize $11 million to buy up to 50,000 computers for students in the city. The district had not been requiring students to do distance learning at home since so many of them have no computers or internet access. Home instruction could begin in mid-April. Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, his wife Aileen and their children told the Inquirer they are donating $5 million to offset the cost.
In other coronavirus-related developments in Pennsylvania:
The Health Department said there were 560 new cases, and the 1,680 total cases are in 48 of the state’s 67 counties. The 10 counties, including Philadelphia, where Wolf has imposed a stay-at-home order on residents are home to 80% of the cases.
Health Secretary Rachel Levine has said she expects a surge of patients in the coming weeks, with cases doubling every two to three days.
The Wolf administration is putting a strong emphasis on buying time to help get the state’s health care system ready for that growing flood of patients, Levine said.
The single highest day for unemployment compensation claims was Friday, when more than 90,000 people filed claims.
That was the day after Wolf unveiled an order for “non-life-sustaining” businesses to shut down. Even before that order, unemployment compensation filings in Pennsylvania had skyrocketed, underscoring how many businesses had already closed or shed workers.
A review of weekly data going back to 1987 shows a high of 61,000 in early 2010, when the effects of the Great Recession were taking hold.
In February, when Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate was 4.7%, a household survey estimated that nearly 6.25 million people were working or looking for work, while 309,000 were unemployed.
In perhaps the biggest single layoff, the Greater Philadelphia YMCA told the state it was letting go of 3,400 employees effective last Friday. In an interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer, president and CEO Shaun Elliot said he fully intends to reopen the non-profit’s branches once it is allowed by the state.
Elliott said the organization’s revenue had dropped “precipitously” when gyms and daycare centers were required to close. Employees will be paid through April 5 and compensated for unused vacation days, he said.
Pennsylvania schools that have been closed for nearly two weeks face a new challenge — legislation requiring them to “make a good faith effort” to continue to educate children.
Schools have to submit their plans to the state Education Department, and it’s already causing some to consider creative approaches, according to Mark DiRocco, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators.
Among ideas being floated, he said, are to have school bus drivers deliver instructional materials along their normal routes, or to fire up Wi-Fi at school buildings so families without internet connections can download material from the parking lot.
The law, which passed both legislative chambers late Wednesday, will be signed by Wolf in the coming days, his spokeswoman said.
It directs the Education Department to provide guidance to all school entities, and the department has previously said there are options. Schools can go forward with “planned instruction,” teaching new material much as they were before the COVID-19 shutdown.
They may also do “enrichment and review,” consisting of more informal lessons that “reinforce or extend” what they were previously taught.
Either way, the agency has said, schools have to address all students’ needs, including those with disabilities and children whose first language is not English.
In Philadelphia, the district hopes to purchase 50,000 computer notebooks to distribute to needy students. Only half the district’s high school students have both a laptop or tablet and a sufficient internet connection to work from home.
COUGHING ON GROCERIES
A woman accused of coughing on produce, meat and bakery items while claiming she was infected with COVID-19 was charged Thursday and jailed on $50,000 bail.
Police near Wilkes-Barre accused 35-year-old Margaret Ann Cirko of criminal mischief, making terroristic threats and other offenses.
The store owner told the Times-Leader newspaper that $35,000 in inventory was lost Wednesday afternoon.
Charging documents allege that Cirko said, “I have the virus. Now everyone is going to get sick.” At one point, the complaint said, Cirko vomited on produce.
No lawyer who could comment for Cirko was listed in court documents. Police said Cirko was taken to a hospital for a mental health evaluation.
Health officials are working on a guide for doctors to address medical shortages and the best use of resources if the number of hospital patients surges, as anticipated.
Levine said the state is not implementing a triage policy, instead referring to it as crisis standards of care.
“There’s no specific decisions about who gets treated or doesn’t get treated, if that’s the implication,” Levine said at a news briefing.
Lauer and Associated Press writer Maryclaire Dale contributed from Philadelphia.
Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.