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Washington County declares emergency after 2nd coronavirus case announced

Washington County declared a disaster emergency Tuesday after a second case of coronavirus was made public earlier in the day.

The second case was announced as another 20 positive cases of the virus were reported Tuesday afternoon in Pennsylvania, the state Heath Department secretary said.

The increase takes the statewide total to 96, with Allegheny County rising by two, bringing its number to eight, Secretary Rachel Levine said.

“Pennsylvanians have a very important job right now: stay calm; stay home and stay safe. We have seen case counts continue to increase, and the best way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is stay home,” Levine said.

All of the patients were either in isolation at home or being treated at the hospital.

The additional cases were as follows: two in Allegheny County; one in Beaver County; three in Bucks County; two in Chester County; five in Cumberland County; two in Delaware County; two in Montgomery County; two in Philadelphia County; and one in Washington County.

The state’s reporting has shifted to a daily update at noon based on results reported to the department by midnight, as the volume of test results continues to increase, Levine said.

The spread of coronavirus prompted Gov. Tom Wolf a day earlier to strongly suggest that all nonessential businesses close, giving restaurants an exception to sell take-out food only. Grocery stores, gasoline stations, pharmacies and health-care facilities were to remain open.

There were 879 patients who had tested negative. With commercial labs being the primary testing option for most residents, data was not available on the total number of tests pending.

The Allegheny County Health Department recorded different numbers Tuesday. The department said it received confirmation at mid-morning Tuesday of one new case of the virus, and three presumptive positive cases, taking its total to 10.

Allegheny spokeswoman Aime Downs has said the discrepancy between the state’s numbers and its numbers involved commercial labs lagging behind in uploading information to the state.

The new confirmed case involved an individual in their 60s who is currently hospitalized. Where the person acquired the virus was not immediately known, the county said.

The three new presumptive positive cases are all young adults over the age of 18 who are in isolation at home, Downs said. Two of the patients acquired COVID-19 through recent international travel and one through recent domestic travel.

State Supreme Court Justice David N. Wecht of Pittsburgh said one of his children caught the virus while studying abroad, and that he learned about it Monday after his child returned home. Wecht said in a news release that he and his family were quarantined at home.

Washington County reported its first case Friday. County Director of Public Safety Jeffrey Yates said the disaster declaration was issued about 3 p.m. and that its main intention was to “relax some of the purchasing process.”

“There are things we would like to purchase, and when they become available, we need to be able to do that quickly,” Yates said.

Those purchases include items such as N95 face masks, hand sanitizers and related items, which are difficult to find in stores or online.

“They’re in short order everywhere – doesn’t matter where you are,” Yates said.

According to the news release issued by the county commissioners, the declaration was “preventative” to allow them to plan for potential emergency response.

“Given the ever-changing situation surrounding COVID-19, the county along with the rest of the country identifies the need to put into place proactive measures to respond to all potential threats that this virus presents,” Commissioner Diana Irey Vaughan said in the release.

She said the county’s department of public safety is working with local partners, hospitals, municipalities and state and federal agencies to “monitor” the pandemic.

At a 2 p.m. news briefing, Levine said there are a number of coronavirus cases in which the state has been unable to track where individuals contracted the virus.

She said there appears to be limited community spread of the virus and no indication of sustained community spread at this time. Levine also said hospitals are not being “overtaxed,” but that could change in the next two weeks.

With the closings of liquor stores, Levine said, the state Drug and Alcohol Program was developing a plan for assisting severe alcoholics.

Dentists are at a particular risk because of how close they are to patients, and guidelines were being developed for them, Levine said.

She urged residents to donate blood, donate to food banks and call on senior citizens to make sure they have everything they need.

With new commercial labs and those now at hospitals, it’s becoming difficult for the state to track the number of people who have been tested and the number of tests where the results are pending, Levine added.

Central Outreach Wellness Center, 95 Leonard Ave., Washington, was hoping to receive 20 test kits Tuesday to detect coronavirus, but had not gotten a shipment from Quest Diagnostics by early afternoon.

“Quest is looking into it,” said Carol Priest, certified registered nurse practitioner for Central Outreach as she fielded phone calls and waited for a delivery.

“Anyone with a primary care physician should call their PCP,” she said. “Their PCP has to deem it an appropriate test.”

The criteria include people who have symptoms like persistent dry cough, fever and shortness of breath; people who have had contact with someone who has a confirmed case of the novel coronavirus; or someone who has traveled recently to affected areas.

If a patient clears those hurdles, the physician can fax a prescription for a test to the Washington Health Systems testing center, or, if a person has UPMC health insurance, a doctor can fax a prescription to UPMC Mercy South Side in Pittsburgh.

Staff writers Barbara S. Miller and Katie Anderson contributed to this report.

COVID-19 is taking a significant bite out of restaurants

Michael Passalacqua needs but one word to describe the pandemic that is encircling the world.

“Devastating. That’s the only word to use,” lamented the owner of Angelo’s Restaurant, the venerable dining destination in North Franklin Township.

He and his family have operated the restaurant, which specializes in Italian cuisine, since it opened in Washington in 1939. No Passalacqua had likely encountered as abrasive a customer as the novel coronavirus, which swept into the United States several weeks ago.

And that customer not only is exacting a toll on restaurants, diners, cafes, coffee shops and virtually anything else food related, it is threatening everything – including, significantly, global economies.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf on Monday ordered restaurants and bars statewide to halt dine-in service, allowing only takeout orders because of the pervasive, highly contagious COVID-19. If this pandemic persists for very long, it will threaten the existence of many food and drink purveyors and the jobs of countless employees.

Michael Passalacqua is concerned for his existence – and that of his employees and, actually, the world. That’s why he shut Angelo’s on Monday WITHOUT offering takeout.

“I’m one of these people who believes this is an exceeding danger, and it could go on for a while,” he said. “You have takeout and someone who is infected comes in and gives it to two or three people, who give it to their families. Gee, thanks for risking everybody’s life.

“Basically, I’m scared to death. We live in Washington County with a large population of older folk (who are at higher risk). I have underlying conditions, so if I get this, I think it could kill me.”

He believes his restaurant can survive a shutdown for, perhaps, two months, a period he said “could be bankrupting for a lot of restaurants. At some point, (a shutdown) could mean a total refinance for me, and I have enough equity to refinance and stay alive.”

Angelo’s, according to Passalacqua, has done “exceptionally well” over the past 2½ years, with sales increasing 16% for the period covering 2017 through 2019. The first two months this year, he added, were prosperous as well.

Short term, he said he wants to take care of his employees as well as possible, while balancing costs such as insurance, mortgage and fixed costs. And advocating teamwork.

“This is not about any one person. It’s about everyone in our country. Everyone has to be a good citizen.”

The governor’s takeout edict does not affect My Son’s Rib Shack in Franklin Township, outside Waynesburg. That’s all owners Matt and Sharon Badali have offered since they opened their roadside business off Washington Road (Route 19) a decade ago.

“We have a few picnic tables outside, but we’ve always been a to-go operation,” Matt Badali said of the “Shack,” which operates out of concession stands. It’s open daily, and it’s where the couple, according to Matt, “sell 60 to 100 racks a day.”

Asked whether he had concerns, he deadpanned over the phone: “About everything. But wear gloves, wash hands and stay six feet away from everyone, especially these two ugly customers.”

Solomon Seafood in Washington also is filling takeout orders during regular restaurant hours Monday through Saturday. An employee declined further comment because of the continually changing circumstances.

Dunkin on Tuesday ramped up its COVID-19 efforts, limiting service at all of its U.S. locations to drive-through ordering, carry-out and delivery.

Although most of its U.S. restaurants were already limited to carry-out orders, Dunkin told franchisees to undertake safety initiatives including removing tables and chairs from restaurants and outdoor patios and encouraging mobile ordering through the Dunkin’ app.

breaking editor's pick
Davanzo claims victory in state House 58th District special election

Robert Prahl Jr.

A Republican from South Huntingdon Township appeared to be poised to win the special election Tuesday for the state’s 58th House District in Westmoreland County.

Eric Davanzo, 43, a union carpenter, captured the majority of the votes for the office, which represents a large slice of the county from Monessen to Jeannette, according to unofficial election results.

Davanzo said he claimed a victory shortly after 10 p.m. He led Democrat Robert Prah Jr. with more than 52% of the vote, according to county election results.

“We’re excited, he said. “We’re looking forward to getting to work for the people.”

Prah, 38, a veteran from Rostraver Township, faced Davanzo in the special election along with Libertarian Ken Bach, 52, a businessman in Smithton.

Prah captured about 40% of the vote, according to unofficial election results.

The special election went on despite Westmoreland County issuing a state of emergency Saturday over the coronavirus pandemic.

While Democrats pleaded for the election to be postponed, it wasn’t at the conclusion of Speaker of the House Mike Turzai, R-Sewickley, who urged voters in a Saturday news release to bring their own ball point pens to sign their names at polling places.

Turzai also stated that some polling places would be regularly sanitized throughout the day.

“These are smart moves to protect the public while also encouraging this important act of democracy to continue without delay,” Turzai said.

The election was called to replace Justin Walsh, a Republican from Rostraver, who was elected in November to the bench in Westmoreland County Court of Common Pleas.

Voter turnout was nearly 19%, the county said.

editor's pick
Coronavirus causing anxiety, stress

As cases of the novel coronavirus continue to spread across the United States, people are increasingly anxious and scared.

Disruptions to daily life, including social distancing and isolation, school and business closings, working from home and the uncertainty of when the COVID-19 pandemic will end and what the human toll will be can cause anxiety in many, especially those who battle mental health issues.

Dr. Rueben Brock, a licensed psychologist, said it’s completely normal to feel fear and anxiety right now.

“Coronavirus plays on our worst underlying fears; we think about the worst-case scenario. Movies like ‘Outbreak’ play on our fears that something will happen and we’re going to die,” said Brock. “But you don’t want to let it get the best of you, especially people who are prone to anxiety. This is the type of situation that can send them into a tailspin.”

Brock and other local experts offered advice on keeping spirits up and handling anxiety during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Stay connected

Social distancing and isolation are important, socially responsible ways to slow down the spread of coronavirus, but they can feel isolating and lonely.

“We need to keep our connections, whether it’s FaceTiming or Zooming or just calling or texting each other to say how you’re doing,” said Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski, director of Common Ground Teen Center, which closed due to the outbreak. “The key is, we need to physically isolate, but not socially isolate. We are social creatures, and socially connecting is really powerful.”

Podgurski has established two private Facebook groups for teens and young adults to share their thoughts and concerns, and keep connected, created a virtual Teen Center, and fields texts and calls daily from children.She has lined up teacher speaks and senior citizens to zoom with kids, and set up a buddy system where teens are responsible for texting each other daily.

“They’re afraid for their loved ones, especially their grandmas and grandpas; they’re afraid their lives are doing to be turned upside down,” said Podgurski. “They have a lot of anxiety about what’s coming up in the future.”

Keep busy

Podgurski made homemade bread. Brock has been playing Pacman with his teenage son, Rueben Jr. Participating in fun, fulfilling activities can minimize anxiety.

“Do things that are relaxing to you. My mama used to make bread. She said kneading the dough and feeling its texture would ease anxiety. And if it didn’t, when you’re done, you have a fresh loaf of bread anyway,’” said Podgurski.

Staying at home provides an opportunity to do activities you enjoy, but might not have had time for: read, paint, do puzzles, clean the house, watch movies or a television show, bake, take virtual tours of national museums, or organize photo albums.

“Do the things that make you feel good,” Brock said. “Make lemonade out of the lemons.”

Limit your information

“Right now, (coronavirus), understandably, dominates the news. But a lot of people sit on Facebook 24/7 and read this dreadful news, and your mind feeds on that,” said Brock.

Brock said he limits the amount of news he watches and recommends getting daily updates from credible news sources, including NPR and the World Health organization and Centers for Disease Control websites.

“Turn on the news, to see only what you need to know to stay informed, and then go play Monopoly with your family,” he said.

Establish a routine

Podgurski said it’s important to establish a routine and to provide structure during uncertain times.

“I really recommend setting up schedules,” said Podgurski, noting that keeping a daily agenda can provide a sense of normalcy.

Consistent wake-up times and meal times can be helpful, as well as built-in time to be outside and establishing where and how people work at home.

Reflect, and take care of yourself

Brock suggests engaging in activities that are calming.

“Get up in the morning, do deep breathing, yoga, anything that gets you centered and calms you down,” he said.

Make time for prayer and meditation to touch base with your spiritual side, said Podgurski.

And while you can’t control what’s happening around you, you can take steps to care for yourself and loved ones. Eat healthy and get enough sleep. Wash your hands frequently. Run or walk outside, or exercise using apps on your phone.

Acknowledge your emotions

Cheryld Emala, a certified trauma specialist for Southwestern Pennsylvania Human Services, said it’s important to acknowledge the thoughts and emotions you’re experiencing because of the dramatic changes COVID-19 is making to our normal ways of life, and then work through those feelings.

Said Emala, “Recognize those feelings, then utilize art, exercise, work, music, creative writing, mindfulness, or helping others.”

Focus on things you can control

“An effective way to handle the stress is to manage your critical thinking skills,” said Brock. If you’re an hourly wage earner who has lost work for the next two weeks, take necessary steps to apply for unemployment compensation.

The best thing we can do, Brock said, is make the best of the situation – and recognize most people who contract COVID-19 have mild symptoms and fully recover.

“We’re all locked into our homes. Let’s just reconnect. Spend time with the people who matter,” he said. “We live in a world that’s super fast-paced and in a hurry. This has made us slow down. Reassess what matters to you. There’s nothing you can do except do what you have to do to keep yourself safe. This will end. We’re going to get through it, but we’ve got to stick together.”

Brock noted people who go through difficult experiences can build psychological resilience and find a stronger appreciation for life and relationships.

Podgurski echoed similar thoughts.

“This, too, shall pass, which means this is going to go away and eventually things will get better,” she said.

For mental health crisis support in Washington County, call 877-225-3567 for 24/7 support.

For information about joining the Zoom link, contact Mary Jo Podgurski at podmj@healthyteens.com.