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Pittsburgh man unexpectedly pleads guilty to Washington drug deaths during trial
  • Updated

In an unexpected twist in the middle of testimony Wednesday, William Henry Greene decided to plead guilty to all charges in multiple drugs cases against him, including two felony counts of drug delivery resulting in death for the fatal overdoses of two people in separate incidents in Washington nearly three years ago.

Greene had just heard testimony from Detective Ryan McWreath of the Washington County Drug Task Force in the second day of his trial when he inexplicably decided to plead guilty as the court was preparing to reconvene after lunch.

Greene, 30, of Pittsburgh, was on trial this week for supplying the fentanyl-laced heroin that caused the overdose death of 29-year-old David Chappel on April 17, 2019, in his East Hallam Avenue residence. Greene was also awaiting trial for the fatal overdose of Megan Peacock, 26, in the city on Nov. 5, 2019.

In addition to Greene accepting responsibility for supplying the drugs that killed Chappel and Peacock, he also pleaded guilty to numerous drug delivery and possession charges in six separate cases.

Assistant District Attorney Rachel Wheeler, who prosecuted the case, surmised Greene heard the direct evidence from McWreath and determined he stood little chance of being acquitted in his trial, which began Tuesday and was expected to continue into next week.

“The case was very clear,” Wheeler said after Greene pleaded guilty. “There wasn’t much for him to argue at this point.”

Wheeler said Greene previously was offered a “global plea deal” for all of his drug cases but he turned it down, which made his decision to opt for the “open plea” in the middle of his trial all the more surprising. Judge Valarie Costanzo is set to sentence Greene in Washington County Court at 1 p.m. April 11 in what could be a longer prison term than what he would have faced had he accepted the plea agreement from prosecutors.

“I’ve never seen it happen before,” Wheeler said.

Greene answered questions from Costanzo as she walked him through each charge to which he was agreeing to plead guilty, but he said nothing else and gave no explanation for his decision. His defense attorney, Renee Colbert, declined to discuss why her client changed his mind, but said she consulted with him and he was adamant about accepting responsibility.

“I think he made the decision that he believes was best for him,” Colbert said.

Wheeler said the families of both Chappel and Peacock were notified of the guilty plea, and they will have the opportunity to offer victim impact statements when Greene is sentenced in April.

“We’re very pleased to bring justice for those victims,” Wheeler said. “Both families have been through a lot.”

After the plea hearing, Greene was taken by sheriff’s deputies back to Washington County jail, where he has been held without bond since his arrest in November 2019. Costanzo later met with members of the jury to explain the outcome before she dismissed them.

Kids' low COVID-19 vaccination rates called a 'gut punch'

Distrust, misinformation and delays because of the holidays and bad weather have combined to produce what authorities say are alarmingly low COVID-19 vaccination rates in U.S. children ages 5 to 11.

As of Tuesday, just over 17% were fully vaccinated, more than two months after shots became available to the age group. While Vermont is at 48%, California is just shy of 19% and Mississippi is at only 5%.

Vaccinations among the elementary school set surged after the shots were introduced in the fall, but the numbers have crept up slowly since then, and omicron’s explosive spread appears to have had little effect.

The low rates are “very disturbing,’’ said Dr. Robert Murphy, executive director for the Institute for Global Health at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “It’s just amazing.”

Parents who hesitate “are taking an enormous risk and continuing to fuel the pandemic,’’ Murphy said.

Hospitalizations of children under 18 with COVID-19 in the U.S. have climbed to their highest levels on record in the past few weeks. Many have other conditions made worse by COVID-19, though many aren’t sick enough to require intensive care.

The low vaccination rates and rising hospitalizations are “a gut punch, especially when we’ve been working so hard to keep these kids well,’’ said Dr. Natasha Burgert, a pediatrician in Overland Park, Kansas.

The vaccines have proved highly safe and effective at reducing the risk of severe illness, hospitalization and death.

Overall, 63% of Americans are fully vaccinated. Among children 12 to 17, the rate is 54%.

COVID-19 shots for young children have been authorized in at least 12 countries. In Canada, where Pfizer shots were cleared for ages 5 to 11 in November, just 2% are fully vaccinated.

Snowstorms, tornadoes and other heavy weather in December are believed to have slowed the pace of vaccination in the U.S., along with the busy holiday season. Also, some parents are distrustful because the vaccine is so new, and many have other concerns.

Chicago mother Kendra Shaw has resisted shots for her two school-age children, saying she worries about possible risks and isn’t convinced the benefits are worth it.

But this week, her 10-year-old daughter pleaded to get vaccinated so she wouldn’t miss school, and her soon-to-be 7-year-old son asked for his shots so he could have a big birthday party.

Shaw scheduled their first doses for Wednesday but said: “I’m really on the fence.’’

Daniel Kotzin, of Denver, said he is convinced he made the right decision not to vaccinate his 5-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son because most omicron cases seem to be mild.

“They are essentially at no risk of harm, so I really don’t understand the reason to vaccinate them,” he said.

Doctors say that kind of thinking is misguided and part of the problem.

“It’s true, kids in general do better than adults with COVID,” said Dr. Elizabeth Murray, a pediatric emergency medicine physician in Rochester, New York, and a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics, “but ‘not too sick’ still can mean miserable with fevers and muscle aches for a week. It can also mean MIS-C or long COVID.’’

MIS-C, or multisystem inflammatory syndrome, is a rare but serious condition linked to COVID-19 that can affect many organs and typically requires hospitalization.

Authorities don’t think omicron is making children and adults more seriously ill than other variants, and say hospitalization rates are up partly because it is so much more contagious.

Some children have been admitted for conditions such as lung disease, diabetes and sickle cell disease that have worsened because of an omicron infection, doctors say.

Dr. Jesse Hackell, a pediatrician in Pomona, New York, said that at least 25% of his patients ages 5 to 11 are vaccinated, but that after an initial rush in the fall, the numbers have dwindled.

“It’s a tough sell,’’ he said. “We’re not ready” is a common comment, Hackell said. “When I ask, ‘What are you waiting for?’ I get kind of a shrug. I’ve had a few say, ’We’re not going to be the first million. We’ll wait to see what happens.”’

A frustrated Hackell said the government’s vaccination campaign is clearly struggling against misinformation and “pseudoscience,” the likes of which he has never seen before in his 40-plus years as a pediatrician.

He said the government needs to get tough and mandate the shots.

“If we could get every kid vaccinated across the board, it would go a long way. It wouldn’t end the pandemic, but it would end the severe disease,’’ Hackell said. “It could help turn the virus into nothing more serious than the common cold, and we can deal with that.’’

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Penn Highlands Healthcare officials urging people to get vaccines, boosters
  • Updated

With the omicron variant spreading across Pennsylvania and hospitalizations on the rise, Penn Highlands Healthcare Chief Medical Officer Dr. Russell Cameron is reminding people to get the COVID-19 vaccination and booster shot to protect themselves and their communities.

Cameron said during a news conference Wednesday the health system is treating roughly the same number of COVID-19 patients in its hospitals as it did during its previous pandemic peak in December 2020.

“The holiday surge started earlier than we expected, and that is largely due to the omicron variant,”said Cameron

The COVID-19 cases are straining the hospital, resulting in longer wait times in the emergency room and acute care centers, and forcing the system to reduce hours at some acute care centers and postpone some elective surgeries.

More than 41% of the 92 patients hospitalized throughout Penn Highlands Healthcare are being treated at Mon Valley, where there are 38 COVID-19 patients. Cameron said 17 COVID patients died at health system hospitals this week.

Cameron said the “overwhelming majority” of the hospitalized patients who are in the ICU, or died, are not vaccinated.

The COVID-19 surge also is having an impact on the health care staff. Penn Highlands Healthcare COO Mark Norman said, as of Wednesday, 199 of the system’s 6,100 employees had either tested positive for COVID-19 or were waiting for test results.

“Our staff is stretched,” said Norman, who commended them for doing an excellent job amid the pandemic.

Norman said the health system isn’t mandating COVID-19 vaccinations for its employees while the issue is being reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court, but it is encouraging the staff to get vaccinated.

About 80% of the health system’s staff has been fully vaccinated.

Meanwhile, Cameron noted, as COVID-19 hospitalizations surge across the nation, Pennsylvania is among the nine states reporting the highest number of pediatric coronavirus cases.

“We are seeing a higher number of pediatric cases,” Cameron said.

He also said cases of influenza are expected to rise, and the health system has seen patients who have had both the flu and COVID-19.

And Cameron encouraged people to donate blood, since the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a critical shortage of blood throughout the country and in the region.

Norman, too, encouraged people to get vaccinated, saying the health system’s priority is keeping the community safe.

“We are seeing people die every day,” said Norman. “We encourage everyone to get vaccinated and get boosted.”