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State to perform mass COVID-19 testing at hard-hit long-term care facilities

Pennsylvania will conduct mass COVID-19 testing at all long-term care homes, some of which have been overwhelmed by cases of the virus.

State health Secretary Rachel Levine said an advisory was sent Tuesday to these facilities, including personal care homes, to draft a schedule for the testing of staff and residents to get a “head start” on the further spread of the virus.

Levine said mass testing at these locations was delayed because “we have not had the testing capabilities,” that supplies have been difficult to find over the past two weeks.

The state deployed the National Guard on Monday to Brighton Rehabilitation and Wellness Center nursing home, a facility in Beaver County that has the worst COVID-19 outbreak in the state. The outbreak there has been responsible for more than 70 deaths, reports suggest.

“This had to be brought in by the staff,” Levine said, while urging friends and relatives of these residents to refrain from visiting them during the pandemic.

Levine’s comments came after state Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin County, called for Levine’s resignation while accusing her of failing to protect residents of nursing homes during the pandemic.

Gov. Tom Wolf on Monday defended Levine against the accusation.

“She’s done a phenomenal job of making sure we do what we need to do to keep Pennsylvanians safe,” Wolf said.”

Levine said she had “no response” to Mastriano’s criticism of her.

Levine said the state has worked with Brighton since it had its first COVID-19 case, and has since installed a temporary manager there to help bring the home under control.

“It got to the point where the National Guard had to come in, and they did,” Levine said Tuesday.

State Attorney General Josh Shapiro on Tuesday announced that his office has opened criminal neglect investigations related to the pandemic into several Pennsylvania nursing homes, without identifying them.

The virus has had a heavy toll on such homes in Allegheny County, where 94 of the county’s 127 deaths from the disease have occurred, the county health department said Tuesday.

“According to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, 350 residents and 103 staff members at 36 long-term care facilities in Allegheny County have tested positive for COVID-19,” the department said in a news release.

There has been one death from the virus at a personal care home in Washington County, where the disease has sickened six residents and two workers at three facilities, the state health department said. There have been no virus cases reported at long-term care facilities in Greene County.

Randy Padfield, director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, said the National Guard will help to clean and sanitize the home in Beaver, and also assist with staffing there.

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Restitution made part of former lawmaker's sentence in years-old case

Bill DeWeese, a former powerful state representative from Greene County, could have to pay restitution on top of the prison time he served for his 2012 conviction on corruption charges.

In the latest twist in a case that’s made its way through courts for more than a decade, the Superior Court ruled on April 28 that DeWeese – a Democrat who once held the position of Speaker in the Pennsylvania House – should have to pay the state back.

The ruling sends the matter back to the Dauphin County Court of Common Pleas. A judge in that county previously stripped restitution from DeWeese’s sentence following a decision by another trio of Superior Court judges, who found in 2017 that the state of Pennsylvania can’t be a crime victim for the purposes of imposing restitution.

DeWeese, 70, who spent nearly three decades in the state House, was initially sentenced to repay more than $116,000 he stole from the state by having his staff campaign for him during their working hours. He served almost two years in prison following his conviction.

DeWeese is now a political consultant and registered lobbyist. He lost more than $3 million by forfeiting his pension under his conviction, court papers say.

The criminal case began a decade ago when DeWeese, a Democrat, was among the wave of politicians and aides from both major parties who were prosecuted under then-Attorney General Tom Corbett, a Republican, during the scandal known as Bonusgate.

DeWeese was later convicted of having had staff campaign on his behalf on state time between 2001 and 2006.

In 2012 a Dauphin County jury found DeWeese guilty of charges including theft, conflict of interest and conspiracy.

His appeal of his conviction has made it to federal court, in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, where he argued that key defense witnesses were improperly excluded during his trial.

DeWeese said he’s hopeful about that direction in his appeal.

“Witnesses went on the stand in 2012 and tried to recollect alleged political activity from 2002. You can imagine how I feel relative to the passage of the last 18 years,” he said. “I believe I gave honorable service to Pennsylvania. The day that Attorney General Corbett came after me, I believed I was not guilty, and I maintain that perspective to this very day. And I still have a fundamental hope that my appellate avenue within the federal judiciary will be received favorably.”

Meanwhile, the office of Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a fellow Democrat, appealed the Dauphin County ruling that eliminated restitution from DeWeese’s sentence.

The office argued successfully that restitution was required under the same law that dictates the forfeiture of pensions by public employees who are convicted of committing crimes related to their jobs.

In an opinion authored by Judge Alice Dubow, a three-member panel of the Superior Court ruled that that law was “unambiguous” and made the restitution “mandatory.” The court said that it would leave the amount of the restitution up to the lower court when it remanded the case again to Dauphin County.

DeWeese said he was “profoundly disappointed” in the new development, which occurred “after a Republican judge in Dauphin County essentially stated in open court that, with the combination of imprisonment and pension forfeiture, the commonwealth had been made whole.

“Mr. Shapiro decided it was incumbent upon him to march into the state Superior Court virtually the next day and caused me more travail,” he added.

Judge Carolyn Nichols joined in Dubow’s opinion in the ruling late last month.

In a dissenting opinion, the third member the appellate panel, Senior Judge James Colins, said the imposition of restitution against DeWeese was unnecessary given the millions he’d lost in state retirement benefits.

“This amounts to de facto double restitution being received by the Commonwealth,” Colins wrote.

Officials in Allegheny County urge continued precautions during phased reopening

Members of the Allegheny County government and business community discussed mitigation practices that establishments should follow when they begin reopening throughout Southwestern Pennsylvania later this week.

“Businesses that will now be conducting in-person operations need to ensure that they’re following all of the guidance from the state, but – just as importantly – they need to do that in conjunction with the businesses that they share office space or a building with to ensure that we’re all doing our part to physically distance,” county Executive Rich Fitzgerald told reporters on Tuesday.

With the exception Beaver, Allegheny and surrounding counties – including Washington and Greene – will be redesignated from red to yellow on Friday. This means that retailers and many other businesses that had to close almost two months ago under a statewide order will be allowed to resume operations.

Businesses must still follow guidelines meant to curb the spread of the coronavirus. State health officials prescribe an array of practices that include handling transactions through delivery or pickup, when possible, and limiting the number of people inside establishments at once to 50% of normal occupancy. Businesses must require customers to wear a mask on their premises. If someone can’t do so, the establishment should find a way to serve the patron without face-to-face contact.

Experts say employers should allow workers to do their jobs remotely as much as possible.

Full guidelines can be found on the website of the governor’s office.

The Allegheny Conference on Community Development is announced the launch of a new website, readypittsburgh.com. The site offers health and safety advice for businesses that are reopening.

“To reopen safely and sustainably, we need to apply what we’ve learned over these past few months – remaining vigilant while moving forward,” said Stefani Pashman, CEO of the Allegheny Conference. “This new resource allows us to continue supporting the efforts of our business community to open the economy in a thoughtful and phased way that also prioritizes public health.”

During the yellow phase of the state-drafted reopening plan, schools, theaters and other larger gathering places will remain closed. Restrictions on visiting prisons and long-term care facilities remain in place. Large gatherings of 25 people or more are still prohibited.

Restaurants and bars can only offer takeout, delivery and curbside pickup.

Dr. Debra Bogen, director of the Allegheny County Department of Health, said she didn’t know what effect the shift would have on cases in the county. She stressed the importance of vigilance from citizens.

“If you’re sick, stay home,” Bogen said. “If you have symptoms, call your primary care physician or the department’s COVID-19 Hotline. If you do go out, wear a mask and stay at least six feet away from others. Wash your hands frequently and clean frequently touched (surfaces) often.”

From Fort Wayne to Waynesburg, man reunited with cats after accident

They were a long way from their Indiana home, but Roger Wulf found his feline travel partners alive and well in Waynesburg.

The cats, Ollie and Buddy, were in the tractor-trailer with Wulf last month when he was involved in an accident on Interstate 79 near mile marker 20 in Greene County.

Wulf, of Fort Wayne, was hauling recycled plastic for his employer, BN Express. He said he was driving north on I-79 on April 17 when he struck another tractor-trailer in front of him about 11:30 a.m.

“I looked in my driver’s side mirror, and I was right there on top of him. There was nothing I could do,” Wulf said.

Wulf suffered a fractured vertebrae and required surgery a couple days after the accident.

Wulf says he drives about 130,000 miles a year. For all of those miles, Buddy and Ollie are with him.

Ollie is a 5-year-old cat that Wulf has had since he was eight months old.

“What made me adopt him was he was missing half of his tail,” Wulf said. “He was a cat that nobody would want because he was deformed.”

Wulf thought Ollie needed company, so he got Buddy a few months ago.

In the immediate aftermath of the accident, Wulf says his cats were at the front of his mind.

“I told the first responders I was worried about my two cats,” Wulf said. The first responders passed the message on to Toni Ferencak, a volunteer at Catnip Acres, a cat rescue in Franklin Township.

Together with Derek Forman, a humane officer for Catnip Acres, set out to locate the cats.

“I drove out to the accident site and looked over the guardrails to make sure it didn’t run into the bushes,” said Ferencak, adding that she hoped the cats did not stray too far from the scene.

The tractor-trailer was towed to Waynesburg. While Ferencak and Forman were setting traps, it turned out neither cat had left their 16-wheeled home, and both were found last week.

“They were in the tractor-trailer the whole time. I climbed up in there, trying to see if I could find something hidden,” Ferencak said. “The whole front of the truck was pushed backwards. They could have been hiding anywhere. They ended up coming out for food. I was happy for the one. I never expected to get the second one.”

Ferencak told Wulf the good news.

“He couldn’t even talk at first, he was so emotional,” Ferencak said.

Wulf had the same recollection of their conversation.

“I was happy. I started crying. I look at those two cats as my kids,” Wulf said.

Wulf says he had some food in the truck, but not enough to last both cats the two weeks they were in there. He said he was shocked to learn they were still alive.

“The grace of God is what kept them alive,” Wulf said. “I love them to death. I was worried about them. I couldn’t sleep, I was constantly thinking about them ... There was a big relief knowing that they survived. Knowing that there’s nice people out there to help somebody like that.”

Wulf cannot drive because of his injuries. However, last Thursday, a friend drove him five-and-a-half hours from Fort Wayne to Waynesburg, and Wulf was reunited with Ollie and Buddy.

“I wish there were more people like (Ferencak) in this world,” Wulf said. “I don’t even know how to say thank you, and how much I appreciate this. Maybe it will inspire someone else to be that kind.”