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Unemployment, jail safety also top list of questions
Residents of Allegheny County want to know about coronavirus testing, and during a recent telephone town hall with local elected officials, they made that known in a big way.
During the April 22 phone call, organized by the Pittsburgh Black Elected Officials Coalition, U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, Democrat of Forest Hills, said legislators wanted residents to be able to ask questions about “unemployment, COVID-19 testing, funding, stimulus payments and other pandemic-related issues.”
Testing quickly topped the list of questions. Callers asked Dr. Debra Bogen, director of the Allegheny County Health Department, about a lack of testing in local communities — specifically in predominantly Black neighborhoods in the East End and Mon Valley.
There is a shortfall in testing, Bogen said, but it’s not confined to any demographic group.
“Testing is really limited across the county,” she said. “We’re really only testing healthcare workers right now.”
The reason, Bogen said, has been a limited supply of the re-agent — the mixture of chemicals used to create a reaction for analysis — needed for the “deep nose tests” that most testing sites are currently using.
Rite Aid pharmacies have recently begun using a new test that deploys “front of the nose” swabs and requires many fewer resources to actually test the sample, Bogen said. It also uses less personal protective equipment for the healthcare worker obtaining the sample, she said.
Those and other new tests are rapidly increasing the county’s ability to test for the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, she said.
(During a briefing April 29, Bogen said Allegheny County currently has the capability to do at least 2,000 tests per day between hospitals, commercial laboratories and other locations, and the number is expected to continue increasing.)
Residents also asked about antibody testing — tests that can determine whether or not someone has already been exposed to novel coronavirus without showing any symptoms, but who may be carrying the disease.
Antibody testing “is not currently available in our communities,” Bogen said, and ”probably won’t be for at least one to two months.”
In addition, current antibody tests for novel coronavirus are not always reliable, she said.
Besides Bogen and Doyle, other participants in the phone call included Dennis Davin, state Secretary of Community & Economic Development; Jerry Oleksiak, state Secretary of Labor & Industry; Tabb Bickell and George Little of the state Department of Corrections; Juan Garrett, executive director of the Riverside Center for Innovation; and state Rep. Austin Davis, Democrat of McKeesport.
Another hot-button topic was the safety and health of inmates in state prisons. Novel coronavirus spreads rapidly in enclosed spaces such as nursing homes and jails. At a jail in Arkansas, 44 out of 47 inmates on a single cell block were found to be infected with coronavirus.
Little, who serves as the state’s executive deputy secretary of re-entry, community corrections and field supervision, said that certain inmates are being released to home confinement or halfway houses during the pandemic.
But other prisoners are reportedly being held on lockdowns for up to 23 hours per day to keep them from interacting with one another.
Inmates at state-run facilities are “getting yard time,” Little said. “They are getting outside and how they choose to use that time is up to them.”
“Susan,” a caller from Pittsburgh who did not give her last name, asked if and when additional food stamp benefits would become available for people who needed them.
Doyle said $2 billion was added to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, as part of the federal coronavirus stimulus package, and he expected the U.S. House of Representatives to vote on another increase very soon, “probably in the next bill.”
“Daniel,” a McKeesport resident, asked why some stores weren’t enforcing the order by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf requiring all visitors to wear protective face masks while shopping.
Several speakers said that if residents find stores aren’t enforcing the mask order, they should call their local police department’s non-emergency number as well as the Allegheny County Health Department.
With many so-called “non-essential” businesses still closed, unemployment was another hot-button issue.
More than 1.65 million Pennsylvania residents have filed for unemployment benefits, said Oleksiak, adding that the state is among the top five hardest-hit by job losses during the pandemic.
Those numbers include self-employed residents as well as those working non-traditional hours, he said.
Oleksiak urged filers to be patient with the unemployment system and its employees. The unprecedented surge of unemployment claims swamped the state’s computer systems and made it difficult to answer everyone’s questions in a timely fashion, he said.
Oleksiak reassured filers that everyone who is eligible will receive the usual benefits, as well as the extra $600 per week allocated through the federal coronavirus stimulus program.
Additional guests on the telephone town hall included state Reps. Summer Lee (D, Braddock), Jake Wheatley (D, Hill District) and Ed Gainey (D, East Liberty) as well as the Rev. Ricky Burgess, Olivia Bennett, Daniel Lavelle and DeWitt Walton of Pittsburgh City Council.
Emily Pidgeon is a freelance writer from McKeesport. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published May 04, 2020.