Montgomery County has ultrafast COVID-19 test results thanks to an emerging nutritional fad
Mako Medical Laboratories, a six-year-old diagnostic company based in Raleigh, N.C., decided in 2020 to enter the nascent field of nutritional DNA.
The idea: Studying a person’s genome could suggest the person’s optimal diet, with recommendations including how much vitamins and minerals to consume. Then COVID-19 struck.
“We had to make a decision whether we were going to retreat as a business and weather the storm,” said Josh Arant, the company’s chief operating officer.
Fortunately, the equipment and tools used to test DNA for nutritional recommendations are used to test for the coronavirus, too. As other large diagnostic companies like Quest and LabCorp struggle to process an enormous number of samples for testing, Mako suddenly finds itself with capacity to spare.
This week, Montgomery County began sending samples to Mako, which promises people who visit one of the county’s six testing sites will get their results within 36 hours. The company has been averaging a 12-hour turnaround.
Penn State reports 148 positive or presumed positive cases among pre-arrival tests for COVID-19
Pennsylvania State University said Friday that 148 students had positive or presumptive positive results from pre-arrival COVID-19 tests and were told to stay home until they are cleared by a health professional to attend classes.
The 148 students were among 17,042 as of Thursday who were subject to mandatory pre-arrival tests because they were coming from areas with a high prevalence of coronavirus, the university said.
There were still 5,005 out of the 17,042 awaiting test results, the university said.
Penn State freshmen started moving into their dorms in State College on Monday, and by mid-week video and reports emerged of students violating safety requirements mandated because of the pandemic.
Other universities trying to return to in-person classes have had to switch back to online-only after COVID-19 outbreaks.
Penn State president Eric Barron warned that the same thing could happen at Penn State if unsafe gatherings continue.
The university had taken preemptive steps in the hope of preventing outbreaks on its campus, which in a normal year is home to more than 40,000 undergraduate students.
Before returning to campus, students had to sign a coronavirus compact and agree to social distancing; wear masks indoors and outdoors when social distancing isn’t possible; and be tested as the university directs. Penn State has said failure to follow these rules could result in disciplinary action, including suspension or expulsion.
New York man in custody in Bucks County on $500,000 bail after arrest for attack on Sesame Place employee over mask-wearing rule
A New York man on Friday was extradited to Bucks County to face charges that he assaulted and seriously injured a teenage Sesame Place employee over the theme park’s mandatory mask-wearing requirement, police said.
Around 6:30 a.m., officers and detectives from the Middletown Township Police Department arrived at a New York City holding facility and took custody of Troy McCoy, 39, on charges of aggravated assault and related offenses for the Aug. 9 attack.
McCoy was transported to Bucks County where he was processed, fingerprinted and photographed, police said. He was then arraigned via close-circuit television before District Justice John Kelly and bail was set at $500,000.
McCoy, who was arrested at his New York City home on Wednesday, was unable to post bail and was being held at the Bucks County Correctional facility pending his preliminary hearing scheduled for Aug. 27.
Shakerra Bonds, 31, was was McCoy’s roommate, also was charged in the case. She agreed to surrender on Thursday but failed to appear. Police said her attorney is arranging for her surrender.
The 17-year-old employee was working at the Captain Cookie’s High C’s Adventure ride when he was punched in the face by McCoy. During the incident, Bonds punched another employee who tried to intervene, police said. McCoy and Bonds then fled the park.
Federal officers got involved in the search because of McCoy’s criminal history in New York, which includes resisting arrest and other assault charges, according to a law enforcement source.
After Philly’s first church-linked COVID-19 outbreak, pastors urge prayers for the sick
In the first outbreak of COVID-19 traced to a place of worship in Philadelphia, a dozen congregants at a church in the Northeast have tested positive for the virus, the city’s health department said Thursday.
After restricting services to online-only since March, CityReach Philly in Tacony resumed in-person worship in July. Within less than a month, a church member began exhibiting symptoms, health officials said.
Soon after that early August diagnosis, contact tracers from the health department noticed a cluster of positive COVID-19 tests in the church’s zip code, and eventually traced the outbreak to CityReach. Besides the 12 congregants who have contracted the virus, 14 people have been identified as having come into contact with them. The 12 live in seven households.
New Jersey moratorium on utility shutoffs extended to Oct. 15
N.J. Gov. Phil Murphy said Friday that the state’s regulated public water, gas, and electric utility companies have agreed to extend a voluntary moratorium on shutoffs to residential and commercial customers until Oct. 15
“Utility services are critical and must continue uninterrupted during this unprecedented time,” Murphy said in a statement.
“No one should have to make a decision on whether to put food on the table or pay for basic necessities. With today’s announcement, in partnership with our public gas, electric and water utilities, we are continuing our commitment to extend strong financial relief to residents and businesses as they navigate their way toward stability,” Murphy said.
Details on the utility shotoff moratorium can be found here.
Our public water, gas, and electric utility shutoff moratorium has been extended until October 15th.
No one should have to decide between putting food on the table or paying for basic necessities during this unprecedented time.https://t.co/ZchrTLqpaa
PIAA votes to permit fall sports, says school districts will make final call
The word came Friday afternoon from the PIAA’s board of directors: “Play ball.”
In an announcement that appears to disregard a “strong recommendation” from the administration of Gov. Tom Wolf, the PIAA declared its intention to continue to plan to sponsor sports such as football, soccer, field hockey and cross-country for thousands of Pennsylvania high school athletes.
The vote by the board of directors was 25-5 in favor of a motion to begin fall sports Monday, Aug. 24.
The ultimate decision to play still lies with each individual school district. Several school districts in the state have postponed fall sports, as have entire leagues such as the Philadelphia Public League, the Del Val League and the Friends Schools League.
But for schools in the Philadelphia Catholic League as well as several Southeastern Pennsylvania leagues, the decision by the PIAA cleared the way to continue preparations for fall sports. Most leagues have previously announced plans to delay the start of the season while waiting further guidance from the PIAA as well as local school and health officials.
On Aug. 6, Wolf administration issued a “strong recommendation”that school-sponsored and youth recreational sports be postponed until Jan. 1 at the earliest. Wolf and Pennsylvania Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine have said the guidance was “not an order,” and that decisions on sports should be made at the local school district level.
Villanova University president issues warning to students to abide by coronavirus rules
Heading into the weekend, the president of Villanova University issued a harsh warning to students about the consequences of partying and disregarding coronavirus health and safety guidelines, saying one event could “shut us down and send everyone home.”
”If your actions force us to close, it’s not just for this semester. It will be for the rest of the year,” Rev. Peter Donohue said. “This will mean, in all likelihood, there will be no commencement on campus next spring, no opportunity to be with your friends, and no more memories made on campus this academic year.”
During Villanova’s first week of reopening, Donohue said “multiple” students had been “issued serious disciplinary consequences, including being sent home,” due to not following safety rules, but declined to provide specifics. The university has a policy not to discuss discipline matters, a spokesperson said. There were no coronavirus cases on campus as of late Thursday, he said.
”While our number of positives from the pre-campus testing was low, that does not mean that we are in the clear,” Donohue said. “As we have seen at other colleges and universities this past week, this is not something to be taken lightly.”
Multiple South Jersey high school students test positive following Shore party
Seven Gloucester County high school students tested positive for coronavirus after attending a party at the Jersey Shore, and more testing is underway, said their school superintendent.
The students, who attend Kingsway Regional High School in Woolwich, went to an Aug. 13 beach party in Sea Isle City. In a letter sent to parents, Superintendent James L. Lavender said the district is working with the county health department to investigate the outbreak and urged parents to cooperate with contact tracers and ensure their kids follow quarantine recommendations.
The letter also noted that the district has worked to develop a reopening plan aimed at mitigating the spread of the virus, and said that though officials want to see students return in September, “the probability of opening — and staying open — to in-person instruction rests solely with each of us, as members of our school community.”
”This experience underscores the realization that every student, parent, faculty and staff member has a responsibility to protect themselves, their families, and every member of our school community,” the letter said. “Our commitment to your health and wellbeing is our top priority. You can assist us by remaining vigilant.”
‘Take the damn call’: Murphy calls lack of cooperation with contact tracers ‘highly disturbing’
New Jersey officials said the number of people who won’t help contact tracers is increasing, with more than half of people who are reached now refusing to cooperate — a trend Murphy said was “highly disturbing, to say the very least.”
“Contact tracers are calling with lifesaving information that will keep you and your loved ones, and our communities, safe and healthy,” said Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli.
There are now 1,612 community contact tracers working for New Jersey
In the past, Murphy has said some who are refusing to cooperate might be young people who have attended house parties.
”Our contact tracers only care about protecting public health,” Murphy said. “This is not about a witch hunt. We do not condone illegal behavior. Especially we don’t condone underage drinking. But that is not what this is about. Please, folks, take the damn call. Work with them.”
New Jersey stockpiling supplies for possible coronavirus surge
Bracing for the possibility of a renewed surge of coronavirus cases later this year, New Jersey is stockpiling PPE like masks and gowns, as well as ventilators and the antiviral Remdesivir, Gov. Phil Murphy said.
In addition to the 600 ventilators in hospitals, the state has a stockpile of 1,447 ventilators, and another 500 on order.
“Building this stockpile is how we’ve been working to protect against the next wave, please God, or the next pandemic, even as we continue to fight this one,” Murphy said.
The stockpile will only be used in the event of a severe shortage, similar to the conditions earlier this year.
“The goal is to be further prepared for any potential fall or winter surge,” said Jared Maples, director of the state dept of homeland security. “We will be prepared for the next time around.”
Philly reports 117 new cases, zero additional deaths
Philadelphia reported 117 new confirmed cases of the coronavirus Friday.
Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said Thursday that the city’s progress in stopping the spread of COVID-19 has continued to improve, especially with a reduction in the percentage of tests coming back as positive.
Trash pickup is now as much as two days behind schedule in Philadelphia, city officials announced Friday.
Trash collection had been one day behind schedule earlier this week and is now running up to two days behind, the city said in a news release. Residents should still put out their trash one day behind their regularly scheduled day. Recycling collection is running multiple days behind.
A total of 10 MLB teams have been forced to postpone games due to outbreaks and related precautionary measures. That includes the Phillies, who were forced to nix games earlier this month due to a large outbreak suffered by the Miami Marlins. In order to make up the postponed games, the Phillies will finish the season by playing 20 games in 18 days — including seven games in five days against the Marlins.
The Phillies are scheduled to start a four-game series against the Mets at Citi Field in New York on Friday, Sept. 4
Mortgage refinancing is about to get more expensive
All year, homeowners have been knocking down mortgage lenders’ doors looking to refinance their loans to take advantage of record-low interest rates. But refinancing is about to cost more.
Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-controlled mortgage financiers, will charge a new 0.5% fee on refinanced loans starting Sept. 1. The government-sponsored entities said the fee is necessary to offset future costs of delayed and delinquent loan repayments resulting from high unemployment and economic uncertainty during the coronavirus pandemic. Borrowers with loans backed by the entities who haven’t locked in their rates can expect an average of $1,000 to $1,500 to be added to the costs of refinancing.
Homeowners who are hurting financially because of the pandemic have looked toward refinancing to decrease monthly mortgage payments for some relief on bills, said New Jersey State Sen. Troy Singleton (D., Burlington), chair of the Senate Community and Urban Affairs Committee, which covers housing policy. Homeowners also have been pulling money out of their homes for expenses.
“There are folks that are utilizing the equity in their home just to make ends meet,” he said. “When you impose this fee, it just hurts people at the absolute wrong time.”
Pennsylvania reported 693 new coronavirus cases on Friday. The commonwealth is now averaging 669 new cases a day over the past seven days, according to an Inquirer analysis, down from an average of 815 a day last week.
The Department of Health said 159,049 coronavirus tests were administered between Aug. 14 and Aug. 20, with 4,819 positive cases — a positive test rate of about 3%. Overall, 127,633 Pennsylvania residents have tested positive for coronavirus since the start of the pandemic.
At least 7,558 Pennsylvania residents have now died after contracting the coronavirus, with 20 new deaths reported on Friday. Of the state’s deaths, 5,121 (about 68%) have occurred in residents from nursing or personal care facilities.
A coalition of six states and Washington, D.C., led by Pennsylvania, sued the United States Postal Service and its top two political appointees Friday morning, saying it has delayed and disrupted mail delivery in an effort to interfere with voting by mail.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Philadelphia, says new Postal Service policies were implemented without going through the Postal Regulatory Commission as required by federal law; those policies violate the law setting Postal Service standards; the resulting mail delivery delays disrupt mail voting in a way that interferes with states’ right to determine how votes can be cast; and that obstructing the vote-by-mail process violates the Constitution by disproportionately disenfranchising older voters who face health risks from voting in person.
”The service delays caused by Postal Service’s implementation of sweeping new policies in the midst of a pandemic may disenfranchise voters because their ballots will not be sent or received in time and may deter people from voting because they do not trust that their ballot will be delivered,” the suit reads.
Pennsylvania is joined in the suit by California, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Washington, D.C. In addition to the Postal Service, they are suing Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a top Republican donor whom President Donald Trump appointed in May, and Robert M. Duncan, the chair of the Postal Service Board of Governors, whom Trump appointed in 2017.
”Defendants’ recently implemented changes are intended to interfere with the Plaintiffs’ ability to count votes cast by mail and to make voters in Plaintiff States, especially senior citizens, less willing to vote by mail,” the suit reads.
DeJoy has said he will suspend implementation of new policies until after the election. In addition to blocking further changes, the lawsuit seeks to reverse policies that have already been implemented.
Postmaster general cites coronavirus for mail delays in Philly
Postmaster General Louis DeJoy cited the “intimidation of the coronavirus” as a major reason why residents in Philadelphia have gone multiple days without receiving their mail.
DeJoy, testifying in a Senate hearing Friday morning, said the Postal Service employee availability average has dropped about 4% nationwide due to the coronavirus pandemic. But in urban areas like Philadelphia, which have been hit hard by the pandemic due to their population density, attendance is down more than 25%.
“Philadelphia has 750 routes, and we have days where we’re short 200 carriers. And this can go on a while,” DeJoy said. “That’s not the only contribution, but when the American people go two, three days without seeing their carrier, that’s an issue.”
DeJoy also testified he had “no idea” blue mailboxes and sorting machines were being removed until a public backlash due to fears of the impact on the 2020 election, with millions of voters relying on mail-in ballots. DeJoy abruptly reversed course this week, announcing the Postal Service will suspend planned changes until after the November election.
Last week, the Postal Services warned 46 states — including Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware — some mail ballots might not be delivered on time because their deadlines are too tight for its “delivery standards.” On Friday, DeJoy assured senators that the Postal Service “is fully capable and committed to delivering the nation’s election mail securely and on-time.”
Penn State plans to screen students for coronavirus with a scratch-and-sniff test
If all goes according to plan, Penn State University students who opt for an on-campus experience this fall will start in-person classes on Aug. 24 under the banner of a “Mask Up or Pack Up” campaign.
But “Mask Up or Pack Up” also offers a less traditional, more proactive approach to virus containment: the smell test.
“Our message is, ‘If you have sudden-onset smell loss, in the absence of other explanatory history like a head injury, the chance of you being infected is high,’” said John Hayes, a professor in the department of food science at Penn State and director of the Sensory Evaluation Center in the College of Agricultural sciences. “This is about raising awareness that smell loss is an early symptom of COVID-19.”
Hayes’ department plans to send scented scratch-and-sniff postcards to students, asking them to monitor their sense of smell. There will be other reminders throughout campus, such as flower arrangements that invite people to “smell the roses” before entering a lecture hall.
Bottom line, said Hayes: “We’re telling our community if you lose your sense of smell, you should self-isolate and immediately get tested.”
According to Danielle Reed, associate director of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, the loss of the sense of smell is one of the best and earliest indicators of COVID-19.
“More COVID patients have loss of sense of smell than have a fever,” Reed said. “Yet fever is often first on the checklist of COVID symptoms and sense of smell is at the bottom, like an afterthought. We think it should be near or at the top.”
Pa. unemployment rate increased slightly in July to 13.7%
The unemployment rate in Pennsylvania in July was 13.7%, according to numbers released by the Department of Labor & Industry on Friday.
The state’s unemployment rate is up slightly compared to June’s rate of 13.4%, but down from a pandemic peak of 16.1% in April, the state’s highest monthly employment rate on record dating back to 1976.
Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate in July 2019 was just 4.4%
Nationally, the unemployment rate in July was 10.2%, falling 0.9 percentage points from June.
“It’s critical that everyone remember that masks are mandatory and must be worn when leaving your home,” Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf said last month. “This virus is not gone, and mask-wearing is a required mitigation effort that we know works to stop its spread.”
It’s not the first time Trump has flouted the state’s mask requirements. In May, Trump didn’t wear a mask while touring Owens & Minor Inc., a mask distribution center in Allentown.
Philly relaxing restrictions on restaurants and theaters
Indoor dining can resume Sept. 8 in Philadelphia, Mayor Jim Kenney announced Thursday, saying he hoped it would be a “turning point” in the city’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.
The move was long awaited by restaurant owners who were frustrated that the city’s restrictions — allowing only outdoor dining — remained in place long after late June, when indoor dining was permitted in the rest of Pennsylvania. But other Philadelphia restaurateurs have said they will not open for indoor dining because they believe health risks to their staff and customers remain too high.
City movie theaters and performing arts venues will be permitted to open Sept. 8, and bowling alleys and arcades were allowed to resume operating as of Thursday, Philadelphia officials also announced. Food cannot be served at those venues.
The city is banking on a continued decline in cases. While it has not reached all the goals that officials set for reopening — such as fewer than 80 new confirmed cases per day or a test positivity rate below 4% — Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said the trends are moving in that direction. The positivity rate was 4% in the last week.
The city “will be quick to close restaurants” that do not follow safety guidelines, Farley said, adding any restaurant that experiences an outbreak will close for cleaning. The reopening was scheduled for after Labor Day to avoid holiday crowds, he said.
“Whether to operate indoors is up to restaurant owners, Farley said. “We have just tried to say, ‘If you want to open, these are the things you need to do to have it be as safe as possible.’”
The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association is expected to vote Friday on whether high school students in the state will be allowed to play fall sports. Gov. Wolf has “strongly recommended” against school and recreational sports until at least January 2021.
The United States reported 44,023 coronavirus cases and 1,078 additional deaths Thursday, according to Johns Hopkins University. The United States has averaged more than 1,000 deaths a day since the end of July, according to an Inquirer analysis.
Public school students and staff in Utah can be charged with a misdemeanor if they don’t wear a mask in school, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. Kids could receive a $1,000 fine or even face jail time, but Gov. Gary Herbert’s spokesperson said the goal is not to “slap a bunch of kids with misdemeanors.”