With non-life-sustaining businesses in Berks County remaining closed under the order of Gov. Tom Wolf, fears of economic distress and health concerns continue.
Many are wondering what the next phase of the coronavirus pandemic will bring, said Dr. Debra Powell, section chief of infectious diseases and medical director for infection prevention at Tower Health Reading Hospital.
“We have plateaued, which is reassuring,” Powell said, noting that changes will come slowly and lifestyles may be permanently altered. “I don’t think we are going to change back to the former normal; it is going to be a new normal.”
Powell, Gerard Oleksiak, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry, and Susan Dickinson, director of the state Office of Unemployment Compensation Benefits Policy, were the guests of state Sen. Judy Schwank during a telephone town hall Wednesday.
Schwank, a Ruscombmanor Township Democrat, who represents the 11th District, and her guests provided updates on COVID-19 related health and unemployment topics and answered questions from constituents.
The state has issued guidelines for allowable activities and travel, Powell said, but caution is advised over the next few months even if restrictions are loosened or lifted.
“I expect people will be wearing masks well into the fall,” she said.
Because the coronavirus is spread by mucus droplets containing viral particles and is not airborne, Powell said, facial masks help “protect the people around you from your secretions and their masks protect you from their secretions.”
Risks increase when people gather in large crowds, she said, recommending that highly dense tourist areas, parks and beaches be avoided this summer.
When it comes to air travel, Powell said, “If people don’t have to get on planes they shouldn’t.”
Schwank and Powell addressed a question on providing better COVID-19 education and outreach to the Latino community in Reading and Berks.
The Reading Hospital collaborated with the Daniel Torres Hispanic Center in Reading to produce an educational video in English and Spanish, Powell said
Schwank noted the numbers of those infected with the virus in the local minority community are concerning. Many area Latinos are essential workers in the food processing industry, she said, and can be exposed to the virus while working or commuting with other employees.
“We are trying to figure out how to keep these workers safer,” Schwank said, noting how important they are to keeping up the food supply. “How do we make their situation better?”
Contact tracing, which involves tracking where infected individuals have been and who has come in contact with them, is very important, Powell said.
When restrictions are lifted and others are recalled to work, there could be many personal factors to consider, Dickinson said, such as one’s age, health status and risk level, and whether or not an employer is using recommended procedures for lessening the chances of infection.
“Discuss any concerns with your employer,” she said, noting employees should not simply refuse to return to work. “Give your employer a chance to mitigate any circumstances.”
Dickinson said those out of work may qualify for assistance through the state’s Unemployment Compensation or Pandemic Unemployment Assistance programs.
The PUA provides up to 39 weeks of benefits to qualifying individuals who are unemployed, partially unemployed, or unable or unavailable to work due to COVID-19 related reasons.
Individuals covered under PUA include the self-employed, including independent contractors, individuals lacking sufficient work history and others who do not qualify for regular unemployment compensation.
“We all have family members impacted by this, medically, financially or emotionally,” Oleksiak said, noting the state’s unemployment rate went from a record low to a record high in just a few days.
New unemployment claims have exceeded 1.7 million since March 15, he said, and about $5.4 billion has been paid out in traditional benefits, not including PUA claims.
Schwank, answering a question on the impact of the virus on state budget, said, “It is very concerning.”
She serves on the senate appropriations committee, which is anticipating a $2 billion to $6 billion deficit in the $34 billion budget.
“It will affect a lot of services,” she said.
Schwank stressed the importance of the coming primary election. Most polling places will be open, she said, referring constituents to the county board of elections for updates.
Mail-in ballots are available for anyone unwilling or unable to go to the polls, she said.
Voters can apply for mail-in ballots online at votespa.com.
Those with unemployment questions should visit www.uc.pa.gov. Those without internet access can get answers to frequently asked questions by calling 877-978-1295.