COVID-19 in Pa.: State prisons report first fatality, testing reaches 1 percent of population

Pennsylvania Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine briefs the press on Saturday, 4/11/20 (Screen Capture)

Pennsylvania officials on Monday confirmed the first death of a prisoner in state custody, just days after Gov. Tom Wolf announced he would take executive action to release some inmates to avoid a more serious outbreak in the state prison system. 

The inmate was a 67 year-old African-American man serving a life sentence at SCI-Phoenix in Montgomery County, corrections officials said in a statement. He died Saturday of respiratory distress from COVID-19-related pneumonia, while being treated at Montgomery County’s Einstein Medical Center. 

The unnamed prisoner, who was jailed on a first-degree murder charge brought by Philadelphia County prosecutors, would not have been eligible for the early release program Wolf announced Friday, which stands to grant temporary transfers to up to 1,800 non-violent offenders nearing the end of their prison sentences.

State prison officials have so far confirmed 11 cases of COVID-19 in prisoners, though they have only administered 54 tests across a population of almost 48,000 inmates, according to Department of Corrections data that was last updated Friday.

The same data show that prison officials have also confirmed 19 COVID-19 cases in DOC staff working across 29 institutions and office buildings. 

News of the prisoner’s death was first announced Monday by state Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine during her daily press briefing. 

The latest on COVID-19 in Pa.: 24,199 confirmed cases in 67 counties

Levine also said that the rate of new COVID-19 cases and fatalities is slowing in Pennsylvania, and remains lower than what other states are seeing more than one month into the pandemic. 

But she stressed that the signs of progress are proof that the state’s strict social distancing measures are working, and that officials should not dial back their mandates to close non-essential businesses and workplaces.

“Social distancing works, and business and school closures have saved lives,” Levine said.

It’s also been almost one month since Wolf ordered all schools and non-essential businesses in Pennsylvania to close their doors.

Those decisions, which mirror actions taken by governors in other states across the nation, have triggered a record wave of unemployment and thrust K-12 students into an untested experiment of mass remote learning. 

Levine added that she has recommended social distancing guidelines that are stricter than the ones Wolf decided to implement, but declined to elaborate on the specifics of those plans when pressed by reporters. 

Health experts have advised the widespread testing will be critical as states begin to relax social distancing orders and reopen businesses and public spaces. Pennsylvania has collected testing data for just one percent of its population, according to Department of Health data published Monday. 

Levine said the state does intend to expand its testing capacity, though hospitals and labs have had some trouble getting the chemicals they need to process patient specimens.

She also said the state will begin to track and publish data on recovered patients — another tactic that experts say is necessary to avoid second and third waves of infection as life returns to normal. 

Pennsylvania’s early efforts to track COVID-19 recoveries will be based on hospital discharge data, Levine said Monday, even though more than 20,000 of Pennsylvania’s 24,199 COVID-19 have not required treatment in hospitals. 

State officials won’t immediately be able to track patients who recovered at home, Levine said, but hope to do population-based surveillance tracking at some point in the future.

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