COVID-19 in northeastern Pa: As cases grow, ‘We’re all in this together,’ community leaders say

The Rev. Jeffrey Walsh helps pack bags of food at Nativity Place Food Pantry in South Scranton, Pa. (Capital-Star photo by Patrick Abdalla)

By Patrick Abdalla

SCRANTON, Pa. — Stephanie Miller points to her right, directing a volunteer with a case of food and says, “They have to go this way.” 

Behind her, workers and volunteers stuff bags with paper towels, hams, cans of soup, vegetables and sauces, and bottles of juice. In front of her, volunteers and workers welcome residents in English and Spanish.

Miller, the program coordinator for Catholic Social Services for the Diocese of Scranton, is coordinating food distribution efforts at the Nativity Place Food Pantry in South Scranton on Thursday. 

The event was supposed to run from 3 to 6 p.m., but when residents started arriving around 2:30 p.m., they started handing out bags early.

Northeastern Pennsylvania is coming together in the face of the COVID-19 crisis, Miller told the Capital-Star .

“We’re all working together,” she said. “We’re all in this together.”

She lists local groups, from the Friends of the Poor, Children’s Service Center, and Weinberg Northeast Regional Food Bank, that have helped put the event together.

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Like many places in the state, northeastern Pennsylvania has a growing number of Coronavirus cases.

As of noon Thursday, Northeastern Pennsylvania has seen 22 cases, up from 12 on Wednesday. Monroe County has 15 cases, Pike County has 3 cases, Lackawanna County has 2 cases and Luzerne and Wayne counties have one case apiece.

U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-8th District, represents much of the area. On Wednesday, he announced he was self-quarantining after coming in contact with a confirmed COVID-19 patient.

“Serving northeastern Pennsylvania in Congress is an honor and a privilege,” Cartwright said in a statement, “and I regret that I cannot be out on the front lines alongside the other leaders in the area who are working so hard to fight this outbreak.”    

The region, which includes such cities as Scranton, Wilkes-Barre and Hazleton, as well as parts of the Poconos, faces the same hurdles as other parts of the state.

Pa. U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright is self-quarantining after contact with confirmed COVID-19 patient

On Thursday night, Gov. Tom Wolf ordered non-essential businesses to close or risk facing penalties. 

Supermarkets aren’t part of the list of closed businesses. Many, such as Gerrity’s, which has stores throughout the area, are adapting to the crisis.

Next Tuesday, the supermarket chain will allow only seniors to shop from 7 to 9 a.m. The stores will also close an hour early each night to do additional cleaning. 

“It’s killing me, the thought that I might turn away a customer,” co-owner Joe Fasula told the Capital-Star. 

However, keeping employees and customers safe is highly important, he said. 

The chain, which includes nine stores in Luzerne and Lackawanna counties, employs 1,100 people. It has made other changes, including shutting down its salad and olive bars.

Morale is important, Fasula added, so the company has decided to pay each worker an additional dollar per hour until April 5.

“We’re trying to keep our employees’ spirits high,” Fasula said.

He first realized how big a deal the COVID-19 crisis was last week.

“I kind of started to feel it last Thursday,” he said. “ Friday was the single highest sales day ever.“

Fasula echoed others’ comments about how the area is coming together.

College life is a big part of life in northeastern Pennsylvania. More than 5,000 students would usually be attending King’s College and Wilkes University in downtown Wilkes-Barre. In addition, more than 9,000 students from the University of Scranton, the Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine, Marywood University and Lackawanna College.

The region also boasts three Penn State Commonwealth campuses, Misericordia University, in Dallas, Pa.; Luzerne County Community College and Keystone College in Factoryville.

None are open.

The medical college is dealing with COVID-19 in several ways. All of the coursework and office work is being done remotely, its president and dean, Steven J. Scheinman, told the Capital-Star.

“We’re very serious about social distancing,“ he said. 

Medical Students have been removed from clinical areas to not increase the demand on personal protective equipment, such as masks, he explained.

Friday is Match Day, in which students find out what programs they will be residents in. Normally, it’s a big day on campus. Instead, the students will be getting their letters electronically and meet up online to celebrate. 

Local school districts are closed. And officials are trying to make sure their students don’t go hungry. Districts such as  Wilkes-Barre Area and Wyoming Valley West offer daily lunch pick-ups for students at district buildings.

 Other districts, such as Riverside, are delivering to different neighborhoods in Moosic and Taylor.

While the region is seeing unprecedented changes, Diocese of Scranton spokesperson Eric Deabill still sees things the region can be proud of.

“It’s the valley with a heart,” he told the Capital-Star, pointing out how many organizations and people are trying to pitch in.

That effort was evident Thursday afternoon as volunteers and workers from Catholic Social Services filled bags and handed them out to those in need. 

Correspondent Patrick Abdalla covers northeastern Pennsylvania for the Capital-Star.