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Pennsylvania sees its first coronavirus death

Pennsylvania saw its first coronavirus death Wednesday of a hospitalized adult from Northampton County in a state where the number of people with the illness continued to rise, the state Health Department said.

Gov. Tom Wolf said the death was the “first in what will become many” during a 5:30 p.m. livestream from his home.

He also said the death “demonstrates the severity of COVID-19.”

“I come to you with a heavy heart,” Wolf said, while urging Pennsylvania businesses to follow his guidance and close to prevent the spread of the virus.

Washington County saw no increase Wednesday in the number of coronavirus cases, where the number of people with the virus stood at two.

Allegheny County saw two additional cases overnight, taking its number to a dozen, the county’s Health Department said Wednesday.

“Most importantly stay calm, stay home and stay safe,” state Health Department Secretary Rachel Levine said at a 2 p.m. briefing on the virus.

The total rose to 133 in the state, an increase of 37 new cases overnight, with Montgomery County at the epicenter of the disease with 42 cases as of noon Wednesday.

So far, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports more than 7,000 cases of the illness, including about 100 deaths, across the country.

During a webinar held by the CDC on Wednesday, Dr. Jay Butler, deputy director of the agency, said health officials don’t know at this point how long the pandemic will continue. He said the health care system was better able to handle the outbreak if the disease spreads more slowly.

“In many ways, we want the pandemic to spread out over as long as possible,” Butler said, going on to describe that outcome as “flattening the curve,” meaning, “we want the pandemic to affect as few people as possible in any given period of time.”

For example, he said, more lives would be in danger if a community’s health care system was overwhelmed by 10,000 cases on an illness in two weeks, versus the same number of cases over three or four months.

Because flu season is still occurring, Butler said most patients with flu-like symptoms will probably not have COVID-19.

He said that with flu season, someone with respiratory symptoms “most likely” doesn’t have COVID-19. Most cases of the illness are mild, he added.

“So it’s important that everybody with a runny nose doesn’t come running to the emergency department,” Butler said. “It’s wise, though, to be on alert for the more severe symptoms. So a very high fever, shortness of breath, tightness or fullness in the chest – those are the kinds of things that may reflect that there’s a more serious manifestation.”

If someone experiences those symptoms, Butler recommended that they call their provider or emergency department in advance to get instructions on how to receive care without risking exposure to others.

Levine said there is a “potential for a likely surge” of coronavirus cases in the state, that her department was working with stakeholders to increase the number of beds in hospitals and find creative alternatives for new spaces for patients. She also said the state was working to obtain more respirators.

She began the briefing by reminding those who travel home from other countries with higher levels of the virus to remain in quarantine and monitor their symptoms.

In Pennsylvania, 1,187 people who have been tested for the virus saw negative results, the state Health Department said.

Washington Hospital said Wednesday that it hasn’t treated anyone with the virus.

“While Washington Health System cannot comment on any specific case, for privacy reasons, we can tell you that as of now we have not had any positive COVID-19 test results, system spokeswoman Stephanie Wagoner said.

“There have been several patients screened based on their clinical presentation and in accordance with current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Pennsylvania Department of Health guidelines,” Wagoner said.


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Washington County Food Bank scaling up to provide during pandemic

With school closed due to the COVID-19 outbreak, these are uncertain times for Christina Etter and her family.

Not only is Etter a single mother of two children in the Bentworth School District, but school closures across the state have left her without work.

Etter, a Cokeburg resident, works for Smith Township-based Jake Schneider Bus Contractor, driving a wheelchair bus for students.

Etter’s family also relies on assistance for food. Her children, a 14-year-old boy and a 5-year-old girl with autism, participated in the free and reduced lunch program at school.

Bentworth School District will continue to provide lunch during the closure, but she knows it will not be enough.

Even before the coronavirus outbreak, she had problems because the Greater Washington County Food Bank recently closed several pantries. The pandemic has only exacerbated her worries.

“It’s probably going to resort to, like choosing between getting cable shut off so you can have extra money for food, or not eating as well as you’re supposed to. Getting cheap things like mac and cheese and hot dogs,” Etter said.

However, on Wednesday, the food bank announced it would be scaling up to provide emergency food and personal care relief.

According to a press release, it expects to deliver 5,000 to 6,000 boxes of food and supplies this month, which is a 50% increase.

“Luckily, we have the infrastructure to shift all of our regular and emergency distribution there now, even as we scale up to accommodate the increased need due to the state of emergency. We hope to act as an example for other food banks, hopefully helping them serve more people and save lives,” said Connie Burd, executive director of the Washington County Food Bank, in the release.

The food bank will move entirely to its “truck to trunks” system, which minimizes contact for clients, staff and volunteers. Staff will load boxes directly from the food bank trucks into their clients’ vehicle trunks.

The food bank is also asking for donations of cash to purchase supplies.

“We anticipate seeing a significant increase in need as people are unable to go to work and are asked to stay home. We are preparing for this, but to do so, we have to increase our operating funds now,” Burd said.

According to the release, the Washington County Community Foundation donated $10,000 to the food bank.

For Etter, there are also other resources she has used that she is not sure about as a result of the pandemic.

The first Tuesday of each month, the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank conducts its Produce to People program at the Washington County Fairgrounds.

In Etter’s experience, there is usually a crowd of more than 100 people, some elderly, waiting to get food.

“You kind of combat with your own mind what’s safe and what’s not safe anymore,” Etter said.

On its website, the Pittsburgh food bank says it will continue with scheduled events, including the Produce to People event at the Greene County Fairgrounds from 10 a.m. to noon March 26.

According to its website, the Pittsburgh food bank is strategizing how it will distribute food while abiding by social distancing guidelines.

Senior centers offer takeout

Many a senior citizen was used to heading to a center for lunch and perhaps a game of cards or just to meet and talk with friends. But that routine was interrupted this week.

“Social distancing” and “self-quarantine” have become all too important to the elderly, even though they’ve survived other pandemics.

Senior citizen centers run by Washington County Aging Services served their last sit-down meals on Monday. Takeout is the only option, whether that be seniors heading to the center to pick them up themselves, or receiving a delivery.

Michelle Manni, assistant director of Washington County Aging Services, said Wednesday, “Meals going out is our priority.”

During a recent month, 10 centers prepared 13,743 “congregate” and home-delivered meals.

Hot meals that meet nutrition requirements are on the menu – not just a sandwich – and those who plan to pick them up should call their nearest center before 10 a.m. for that day’s takeout, Monday through Friday.

If a participant has a medical appointment the next day, for example, that would interfere with pickup time, he or she can receive two meals at once.

Meal service is available to those age 60 and older with a suggested donation of $2 toward the cost of the food, not the salaries of those who are preparing it or other factors.

Manni said someone who is struggling can call 888-301-1836.

“Our main focus is to make sure our seniors are getting food,” Manni said. “We’ll figure out a way.”

Commission Chairwoman Diana Irey Vaughan said The Meadows Racetrack and Casino, which closed Monday due to the coronavirus pandemic, offered to provide food it had on hand in its kitchens to senior citizen centers.

Manni, assistant director of Washington County Aging Services, said the casino’s donations of fresh fruit, for example, were being added to takeout meals.

Irey Vaughan asked Don Martin, executive director of Intermediate Unit 1, based in Coal Center and covering Washington, Greene and Fayette counties, to get out the word that volunteer high school students who have driver’s licenses could deliver meals for community service credit while classes are suspended.

“Senior centers would be a great place to do that since they’re in dire need of services right now,” Martin said.

“They should really contact their school principal first of all. Students would need parental consent.”

Because after-school programs for juvenile offenders aren’t operating, probation officers have been aiding in meal delivery, Manni said.

“Even though this is an unprecedented event, it’s nice seeing the groups come together that normally don’t,” Manni said. “I know it’s still early, but we’re pooling and we’ll get the job done.”


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Virus sparks a spike in gun sales here and nationwide

The weekend at Ace Sporting Goods ended with a bang.

George Romanoff, co-owner of the South Strabane Township firearms shop, said his facility teamed up with gun manufacturer Ruger for a promotional weekend. The store, along Washington Road, hit its sales target and more.

“That was probably our best promotion since 2013. We were extremely active,” said Romanoff, 71, who owns the business with his son, Ben. “I attribute 40% of that to the manufacturer, 40% to the coronavirus and 20% to normal sales.”

In the midst of this global pandemic, the Romanoffs temporarily closed their shop after business Monday. And it was a manic Monday, to be sure.

“We did about four times as much business as we usually do,” George said. “We had a run of ammunition and sold a number of firearms to first-time buyers. There’s definitely been a major spike in firearms sales, and it’s because of the virus.”

That was the general sentiment of gun shop owners who were contacted Wednesday. Sales have shot high, they said, especially among those who had never owned a firearm before. George Romanoff attributes the activity to fears fostered by the pandemic – including fears of the behavior of others, spurring people into a self-defense mode.

“People who are panicking to buy in our industry are concerned about civil disobedience,” he said. “Why else would they?”

Romanoff has responded to potential disobedience by increasing security measures while the store is closed.

Justin Chadwick, owner of Justin’s Gun Shop in Washington, echoed Romanoff’s sentiments.

“It’s been chaos, crazy since Friday,” he said, while working in his closed office on East Maiden Street. For health and safety reasons, he is operating temporarily by appointment only.

“We had more gun sales in three days (over the weekend) than we had over the past month,” Chadwick said. “People who had never had guns before are buying. They’re panicking, worried about people breaking into their homes, and are desperate to protect themselves.”

He said customers are purchasing “handguns, long guns and all the ammunition they can get their hands on.” The shop’s inventory, Chadwick added, has been seriously depleted in a short time.

Gun sales have been rampant recently throughout Pennsylvania, according to an Associated Press report Wednesday. AP said the state-run background check system for gun purchases handled more than 4,300 transactions on Tuesday, triple the typical daily rate.

Romanoff said rising firearms sales appears to be a national phenomenon. “We deal with distributors all over the country, with handguns especially, and there’s definitely a run on firearms with every one of them.”

He considers the pandemic “a serious, serious” circumstance, the spread of which health officials are attempting to control in part by limiting crowds. Romanoff said Texas has responded by canceling its popular gun shows. The Showmasters Pittsburgh Gun Show, scheduled for April 4-5 at Monroeville Convention Center, was still on as of Wednesday afternoon.

Gun purchases apparently have ramped up in the panhandle as well. Frank Provance, owner of Sand Hill Sports near Wheeling, W.Va., told the Wheeling Intelligencer that he likewise has experienced an increase in gun and ammunition sales in recent days.

“My sales yesterday were twice what they would be on a normal day,” Provance said, adding that ammunition sales alone have been higher than gun sales. He said he is selling a lot of handgun ammunition and has heard that other vendors are selling out of it, as well.

He also is experiencing long waits when running an “instant” background check, usually a brief transaction. He said he has experienced a nearly hourlong wait to talk with somebody.

Provance said it seems that during times of crisis, people look for ways to prepare.

“I think people are stressed and worried,” Provance commented.

Industry experts told AP that sales have spiked nationwide in recent days, with some people purchasing their first firearm. Others are existing gun owners adding to their collection or stocking up on ammunition after seeing grocery stores depleted, schools closed and big events canceled, including the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting.

Specific data on the size of the sales spike will not be available until next month. But already this year, background checks are up considerably over last year. According to data from the FBI, just over 5.5 million background checks were conducted in January and February combined.