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Virus surge threatens Pa. schools, prisons, ballot counting

The Investigator

November 12, 2020 | spotlightpa.org

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Pennsylvania set yet another COVID-19 record this week, with the Department of Health reporting 5,488 new cases Thursday. Cases are now growing at an exponential rate, and the fallout is being felt in all areas across the state. Perhaps the most serious indicator — deaths — has begun to rise.

A serious coronavirus outbreak is unfolding inside the Pennsylvania prison facility for medically vulnerable inmates diagnosed with cancer or other health problems, Spotlight PA's Joseph Darius Jaafari reports. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are urgently pushing for a release plan.

School districts are also facing increasing pressure to return to fully virtual learning. That's the recommended course for nearly 40 districts, PennLive reports, and some are heeding the call. Experts at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia are similarly pushing for southeastern schools to abandon in-person learning, warning of a "catastrophic situation" building. The Inquirer found collar county schools are so far not planning to change course.

Even ballot counting is being hampered by fresh outbreaks. Officials in Westmoreland County are scrambling to find additional volunteers to finish counting provisional ballots after four people tested positive, and two others are awaiting test results, according to TribLIVE.

There was some hopeful news this week as Pfizer announced that early data indicates its vaccine is highly effective. When a vaccine is available, Pennsylvania plans to prioritize health-care personnel, frontline and emergency workers, and those working with vulnerable populations, Spotlight PA's Jamie Martines reports.

With cases continuing to rise, Martines is switching full-time to the coronavirus beat and will be digging into how the virus is affecting hospitals, local communities, and more. Have an idea or tip for her? We've also added a new investigative health reporter, Ese Olumhense. You can find more about each of them, or get in touch, here.

Sarah Anne Hughes of Spotlight PA


"No matter what happens, I just want it to be fair."

— Lisa Dart, Carbon County’s elections director, on calls for additional post-election audits

» COVID-19 UPDATE: The daily case trend in nearly 50 of Pennsylvania's 67 counties is rising. Keep up with our coronavirus tracker, and sign up for alerts for your county.

» GOP to probe unverified fraud claims in election they largely won

» Top Republican casts doubt on vote without ‘any evidence of misdoing’

» Democrats fell in races across the state — and the infighting has begun

What could be done to help people facing eviction

As Pennsylvania faces a winter surge of coronavirus cases, a federal eviction ban is supposed to keep thousands of struggling tenants in their homes and out of danger.

But a Spotlight PA investigation found the order’s ambiguous language and a lack of clear guidance from the state have led to major inconsistencies in the way it’s being interpreted in each county. The result: Evictions are up as some tenants fall through the cracks and landlords find loopholes.

Advocates want the state to provide clearer guidelines on how the federal order should be interpreted, but the administrator of the state court system told Spotlight PA he doesn’t intend to. Still, there are other possible solutions to protect tenants — though those in power haven’t signaled they will take any additional action. 

Another state eviction moratorium

The problems with the federal order could be fixed by another statewide eviction moratorium, like the ones in place over the summer, advocates say.

Despite issuing previous orders, Gov. Tom Wolf now says he does not have the legal authority to do anything else. Meanwhile, the GOP-controlled legislature hasn’t shown any indication it’s considering such a move.

Direct cash assistance

Moratoriums are temporary. Eventually, unpaid rent will come due and tenants will be evicted. 

The most direct way to help people is through cash assistance. But the state’s main rent relief program is no longer accepting applications. Many tenants were unable to access the program because of problems with the law that created it

Republicans in the state Senate refused to make urgently needed fixes, and millions of dollars will likely go unused. Without additional statewide help, some counties have set up their own rental assistance programs, and local nonprofits and churches are also offering some help. 

It’s still possible that Congress could pass another stimulus package that includes more money for rent relief — although it’s not clear how likely this is before the federal eviction ban expires.

Charlotte Keith of Spotlight PA

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TO RECANT OR NOT TO RECANT: An audio recording shows an Erie postal worker who claimed a postmaster instructed workers to backdate ballots mailed after Election Day has recanted his allegations, The Washington Post reports. Meanwhile, an Erie Times-News review found that just two ballots that arrived after Nov. 3 were processed through the Erie postal facility.

SUBURBAN SURGE: Even though President-elect Joe Biden outpolled Donald Trump in Allegheny County as a whole, many blue-collar towns in the area supported the president again Nov. 3, PublicSource reports. Still, a Philadelphia Inquirer analysis found the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia suburbs — as well as smaller towns across the state — turned out for the Democrat and helped deliver his victory. These maps show those gains.  

COUNTDOWN: The clock is ticking on the partial state budget lawmakers passed in May in response to the pandemic. Much of that budget expires at the end of this month, meaning the legislature needs to quickly finalize a plan for the last seven months of the fiscal year, PennLive reports.

OFF THE TABLE: Insomnia won't be added to the list of conditions that qualify a person to receive medical marijuana in Pennsylvania, a state advisory board ruled this week. TribLIVE reports that supply at certain dispensaries remains an issue.

'NOT AFRAID': When a group of House and Senate Republicans gathered Tuesday to call for the creation of a committee to investigate the election, most of them weren't wearing masks. Asked by WITF why they were flouting public health rules, most declined comment, while one lawmaker responded, "We are not afraid."

» AP: Few legal wins so far as Trump team hunts for proof of fraud

» INQUIRER: Trump campaign targets Philly-area ballots at record rate

» POST-GAZETTE: Pennsylvania waits for another stimulus package

» WHYY: Pa. environmentalists actually voted this year. That's a big deal.

» WHYY: Walter Wallace Jr. eulogized at emotional funeral service

Yaasmeen Piper of Spotlight PA
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ALL IN THE BAND (Case No. 64): A goat, cow, pig, and horse decide to form a rock band. But they quickly figure out they need one more member to play a critical instrument, and they know exactly who they need: a turkey. What instrument did the band need the turkey to play, and why?
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