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Volunteers help vaccine clinics run smoothly

The first time Leo Trich, of North Franklin Township, was in a COVID-19 vaccine clinic, he was there with his daughter, Brittney, who has a medical condition that qualified her for a vaccine.

“When we went up to get the vaccine, no one in there was smiling more than my daughter was,” Trich said. “She was so happy to get the vaccine. I wanted to give back to the community and the organization, to help give other people the feeling she had that day.”

That’s when Trich decided to become one of the many unpaid volunteers who have helped vaccine clinics in the region run smoothly. He volunteers once a week with WHS Washington Hospital clinic at Washington Crown Center.

“They’re greeting people and helping them with the consent form, and sometimes even physically moving people who are not ambulatory,” said Rebecca Biddle, director of volunteer services for Washington Health System. “The health system would have to hire people to do everything the volunteers do.”

Tina Cushey, co-owner of Curtis Pharmacy, was vaccinating folks Wednesday during its clinic at the South Franklin Township Volunteer Fire Department Social Hall. She said they have about 12 unpaid volunteers who help with registration, consent forms and getting through the appropriate lines.

“It takes all of them to make it go smooth,” Cushey said about the volunteers.

Biddle said they have about 40 unpaid volunteers in Greene County, the Peters Township clinic and their main clinic at Crown Center. Many of those volunteers have been volunteering for Washington Hospital since before the pandemic, so when assistance was needed for the clinics, they jumped at the opportunity to help.

“I think it is their call to action, where they see this need, and they say, ‘How can I help?’” Biddle said. “That’s what our volunteers do. They very much are of the mindset to come together to help the community. They’re very willing to give extra of their time.”

Trich, for example, has been involved with the Washington Hospital Foundation’s board of directors for about 21 years, he said. When his daughter received her second vaccine at the Crown Center clinic, he said he “was really impressed by how organized it was and how many people were helping out.”

He wanted to be a part of that, and so far, he said, it’s been a good experience.

Marlene Rhoades, of South Franklin Township, also volunteers at that clinic twice a week. She’s volunteered for the hospital in the past, as she’s president of the Washington Hospital Auxiliary.

“I thoroughly enjoy it – to see the people come in and feel like they won the lottery,” she said. “They’re all full of smiles and are grateful and appreciative of how it’s run, because it runs very efficiently.”

Rhoades said the volunteers are the first point of contact, greeting people who arrive for their shot. They help them with forms, directions, and checking in with the nurses.

“We try to get people to relax, because a lot of people come in and they’re really nervous,” she said.

The majority of folks receiving the vaccine, however, are very happy to be there, Rhoades said.

“They wave and say, ‘Thank you,’ and it just makes you feel good,” she said. “It makes you feel like, ‘Oh, I did something nice today.’”

Stuart Harris, of Bridgeville, who volunteers at the vaccine clinic at the Peters Township recreation center, likened the excitement to people just returning from a trip to Walt Disney World.

“It might be the happiest place on earth because everyone coming in is just so happy to be able to get their shots,” he said. “For the six hours I’m there, every person who comes through there is like the happiest person on earth. It’s been quite heartwarming.”

Harris has been volunteering with Washington Hospital for about five years and sits on the volunteer advisory board.

“Because of COVID, a lot of the usual volunteer duties were postponed,” he said. “So, when this came around, it was an opportunity to stay active in the volunteer community. It’s been incredibly delightful. It might be one of the most enjoyable things I’ve ever done.”

Rhoades and Harris both commented on the number of vaccines now being distributed in these larger clinics, and how grateful they are to participate.

“It’s an honor to be a small part of it,” Harris said.

All of the Washington Health System volunteers were able to receive vaccines as part of the rollout, Biddle said.

Long-term care homes begin lifting COVID-19 restrictions, reopening to visitors

Since Robert Tully’s mother, Janine DeVaux, moved from a New Jersey nursing home to The Residence at the Hilltop in Carroll Township on July 28, 2020, he’d only been able to visit through the window or in a designated area because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

That changed on Thursday, when the personal care home, an affiliate of Monongahela Valley Hospital, opened its doors for in-room visits.

For Tully and his wife, Beth, who stopped by DeVaux’s window several days every week – often with their dachshund, Daisy, in tow – that meant it was the first time they had gotten to visit inside the personal care home in nearly eight months.

“I had never seen the inside of my mother’s room,” said Robert Tully. “(Thursday) was the very first time I saw it.”

DeVaux, 87, chatted happily with her family and snacked on black licorice Twizzlers.

“I’m very happy to see them,” she said, smiling broadly.

The residents, their families and the staff are delighted to be able to visit in person again.

“There were a lot of happy tears,” said Kim Taliani, director of Residence at the Hilltop, which has about 60 residents. “We are a big family, and without the families being here, we weren’t complete. It was hard on the residents, it was hard on the families, and it was hard on the staff, too, because we had to fill in that void of the families not being here.”

On Thursday, Hilltop permitted one-hour scheduled visits in the morning and evening, with up to two family members.

About 99% of the residents and 85% of staff have been vaccinated.

The Tullys and DeVaux have received their vaccinations – a significant moment for DeVaux, Robert Tully said, because she no longer is required to isolate after returning from outings such as doctor or dentist visits.

The Tullys wore their masks at all times and remained in DeVaux’s room during the visit, as required.

Pennsylvania’s long-term care facilities were shut down on March 13, 2020, and most residents haven’t been able to have close contact with family and friends.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which loosened its restrictions for visitation on March 10, acknowledged that long-term care facilities have been hard-hit.

People living in long-term care facilities represent about 1% of the population, but account for 1 in 3 COVID deaths.

In Pennsylvania, more than half of the state’s nearly 25,000 COVID-19 deaths were long-term care residents.

But, the CMS said, the physical separation from family and other loved ones has take a physical and emotional toll on residents on their loved ones.

The Tullys were able to enjoy occasional front porch visits, where they were separated from DeVaux by a Plexiglas barrier.

“She’s a little hard of hearing, and with the mask on and the barrier, it’s hard communicating,” Robert Tully said.

DeVaux’s move to Washington County enabled the Tullys to see her more than they could have if she had stayed in New Jersey during the pandemic.

“She was a little confused at first when we first brought her here because (Hilltop) was in isolation because there were no vaccines or anything, but having us be able to come and see her every day helped a lot,” said Robert Tully. “There wasn’t stress. The stress was when she was in New Jersey.”

The family established a routine: the Tullys drove from their McMurray home, parked near her window and called DeVaux, and she took her phone to the window, where they talked and saw each other.

“But this is the big leap,” said Robert Tully.

DeVaux was a reservist in the U.S. Navy after she graduated from high school, and then worked as an executive secretary for an international power company in New York City before becoming a stay-at-home mother.

She enjoyed traveling internationally, and is an avid reader and enjoys movies. Also, DeVaux is fond of Sarris dark chocolate pretzels.

Taliani said reopening Hilltop “is a relief.”

“When we closed our doors last year, it was such a sad day,” said Taliani. “Our residents don’t live in our workplace, we work in their homes. This is their home, and today is a happy day for all of us.”

In Fayette County, LaFayette Manor is preparing to open for visitors by March 30, following a recent COVID-related shut down.

“Everybody’s preparing. They’re getting their hair done, they’re getting spruced up like it’s a parade,” said Linda Stumpf, administrator at LaFayette, which currently has 64 residents.

Stumpf said residents are anticipating being able to hug and hold the hands of vaccinated family and friends.

About 94% of the residents at LaFayette have been vaccinated.

The visits, Stumpf said, “help the mood and the morale so much, even for our staff, who have been doing a lot with residents.

“When we see they’re happy, we’re happy, and it lifts the morale,” she said.

Throughout the pandemic, LaFayette has implemented ways for residents to see family and friends, including FaceTime and window visits.

“But there’s nothing like being in-person,” said Stumpf. “They’ve been waiting for this.”

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Filing delays ease a taxing situation

Jennifer Schmidt has recovered from the siege of last summer, but has not forgotten how weary she was. That is one reason why she embraces a second annual tax day delay.

“The delay is going to be appreciated in this office,” said the owner of Jennifer Schmidt Tax and Accounting in Centerville.

March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, was a lucky day for Schmidt and many of her tax-preparing peers. The Treasury Department and Internal Revenue Service announced that day they were pushing back the filing deadline for individual federal income tax returns for 2020 from April 15 to May 17.

Shortly thereafter, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and other states delayed the filing of state returns to May 17 as well. The Keystone State deadline, under Pennsylvania law, is the same as the federal deadline.

As with just about everything, blame it on the coronavirus. As IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig said on St. Paddy’s Day: “This continues to be a tough time for many people, and the IRS wants to continue to do everything possible to help taxpayers navigate the unusual circumstances related to the pandemic, while also working on important tax administration responsibilities.”

The pandemic, which began assaulting the Keystone State last March, caused backlogs of 2019 returns that the IRS, with limited staffing, had difficulty handling. Some individuals – especially those who filed paper returns – are still awaiting refunds as they plan to file their 2020 taxes.

Those circumstances a year ago forced the federal and Pennsylvania governments to extend the filing deadline to July 15.

Revenue Secretary Dan Hassell told the Associated Press that the delay in Pennsylvania “is a positive step that provides additional time to taxpayers, many of whom have been struggling during the last year. The new deadline will be a benefit for many Pennsylvanians, including those who plan to meet with a tax professional for assistance with preparing their returns.”

Schmidt, in a January interview with the Observer-Reporter for a separate story, predicted in late January that there would be another delay. She said at the time: “I think we’ll see the April 15 deadline system extended. I would not be surprised if they extend it to July 15.”

She said the IRS has had to deal with a lot, including the processing of Recovery Rebate Credits last year and the recently enacted American Rescue Plan, the $1.9 trillion economic stimulus bill.

“I don’t think they’ve been able to catch their breath, just as we could not,” Schmidt said.

“Things have not been smooth since the pandemic hit. A lot of people have been out of work since last March and are still not back. Twenty percent of our clients have collected unemployment (compensation). Clients are looking for documents that were lost in the mail.”

Cutting through the morass isn’t easy, but one way to minimize the mess, according to the IRS, is to file as early as feasible. A taxpayer also can apply for an extension to Oct. 15.

In the meantime, work continues to pile up for the IRS, Pennsylvania’s Revenue Department and state tax governing bodies. And for tax preparers.

Jennifer Schmidt will, indeed, appreciate the delay.

“We have a big pile of returns to process,” she said. “I’m hoping to get a summer break this year.”