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State to open virus testing sites; job losses spike

Marc Levy and Mark Scolforo
Associated Press

HARRISBURG – Pennsylvania’s Department of Health is working on a plan to open public testing sites for the coronavirus, as more services shut down and the state sees a spike in people filing for unemployment compensation.

The Department of Labor and Industry said unemployment compensation claims exceeded 50,000 on Monday, and Tuesday’s filings were on course to exceed that number. In the entire first week of March, the state received barely 12,000 claims, according to federal data.

“It’s going to be a big mess, a double mess: illness and unemployment,” said John Dodds, director of the nonprofit Philadelphia Unemployment Project, which has been flooded with calls from people who were laid off.

Meanwhile, Amtrak is shutting down lines in Pennsylvania, and the number of confirmed cases in Pennsylvania approaches 100.

In response to the spread of the virus, Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration has ordered schools statewide closed, and sought a halt to all nonessential government and business activity. The federal government, meanwhile, has recommended against gatherings larger than 10 people.

The Department of Health and the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency are in the process of organizing public testing sites, one in Philadelphia and one in Montgomery County, in hard-hit southeastern Pennsylvania.

The model will follow federal guidance with a drive-through concept with tests reserved for people who meet certain criteria, officials said.

“The goal of those two sites is really to test folks that fall within a certain symptom range,” Randy Padfield, director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, said during a news conference Tuesday at his agency’s headquarters.

Some hospitals are operating specimen-collecting sites, while others are operating their own testing laboratories.

Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia is able to test for COVID-19, and Geisinger Health System can test its own patients; Health Network Laboratories/Lehigh Valley Health Network will be able to test in the next couple of days.

A look at the other developments in Pennsylvania:

AMTRAK

Amtrak said it is suspending its Keystone Service starting Wednesday, and all Pennsylvanian trains on Thursday. The Keystone runs between Harrisburg and New York City, and the Pennsylvanian runs between New York City and Pittsburgh.

Amtrak cited a state mandate in Pennsylvania. The state Department of Transportation said it is focused on slowing the spread of COVID-19.

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CASES

Cases confirmed in Pennsylvania have exceeded 95 as of Tuesday, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health. About two-thirds of confirmed cases have been in southeastern Pennsylvania. The majority of testing is now being done by private labs.

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UNEMPLOYMENT

The Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry is relaxing some of its unemployment compensation benefits restrictions amid high call volumes to its service centers.

The department said Tuesday that it has suspended the weeklong wait to start receiving benefits and temporarily waived work search and work registration requirements.

The department is also advising applicants that they may be eligible if their employer temporarily closes or goes out of business, reduces their hours or tells them not to work, self-quarantine or isolate because of the coronavirus.

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PENNSYLVANIA TURNPIKE

The Pennsylvania Turnpike has suspended the use of cash and credit cards at interchanges, and now it is ending fast-food service and inside dining service at all 17 service plazas along its 552-mile roadway.

Inside restrooms are closed, although portable toilets and hand-washing stations are available. Gas stations and convenience stores are open.

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PRICE GOUGING

The Pennsylvania attorney general’s office says it’s fielded nearly 1,200 complaints about price gouging related to the coronavirus outbreak.

The agency said it has filed 45 complaints and 34 cease-and-desist letters and subpoenas as a result. The office is taking complaints through the email address, pricegouging@attorneygeneral.gov.

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BUSINESSES

The Pennsylvania chapter of the National Federation of Independent Businesses said Tuesday that Gov. Tom Wolf’s effort to close down nonessential businesses to combat the spread of the virus had confused many of its members.

Smaller businesses and those with low cash reserves could be ruined, and many have closed and laid off workers, the state NFIB said.

In an open letter to its members released Tuesday, the Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage and Tavern Association called Wolf’s action difficult, but in the interest of public health.

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The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.