TL;DR: County jails are breeding grounds for disease, and experts say a COVID-19 outbreak behind bars could not only put hundreds of inmates at risk but also spread the virus to surrounding communities. This week, Philadelphia courts held the first hearings to review such cases, and over three days approved the release of more than 200 inmates.

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— Allison Steele (@AESteele, health@inquirer.com)

What you need to know:

🛑 More than 20,000 people in the U.S. have died from COVID-19, more fatalities than in Italy.

🔒 When Pennsylvania lifts the stay-at-home order, “it’s not going to be one grand opening, it’s going to go in a progressive fashion,” Pa. Health Secretary Rachel Levine said.

🏫 New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio wants city schools, like those in Pennsylvania, to remain closed for the rest of the academic year.

👐 New Jersey will require those riding public transit to wear masks. The announcement came a day after SEPTA reversed a similar policy.

Local coronavirus cases

📈As of Saturday evening, there are close to 14,000 reported cases in the Philadelphia area. Track the spread here.

  • PHILADELPHIA: 6,022 confirmed cases (up 229 since yesterday)

  • SUBURBAN PA: 5,202 confirmed cases (up 594 since yesterday)

  • SOUTH JERSEY: 2,696 confirmed cases (up 196 since yesterday)

Racing against a coronavirus clock, Philly courts release 200+ jail inmates in the first week of fast-track emergency hearings

For weeks, advocates have warned that county jails are ticking time bombs when it comes to the spread of disease. Jails have high rates of population churn, and behind bars it’s impossible to maintain social distancing. Experts say a COVID-19 outbreak would threaten not only inmates and staff, but also the communities surrounding the jails, and in recent weeks, other cities and counties have thinned jail populations by releasing eligible prisoners.

In Philadelphia, courts last week held hearings that cleared the release for more than 200 inmates, like nonviolent offenders who had completed their minimum sentences and those being held on cash bail or low-level charges like drug possession. In deciding each case, judges weighed the circumstances of the alleged crimes, whether victims had expressed safety concerns, and if prisoners had stable homes to return to. But even with a deadly virus looming, the question of who would be better off outside of jail was not always easy to answer.

Scarcity of coronavirus testing, lack of demographic data could hamper Pa.’s efforts to reopen parts of the state

To understand how COVID-19 works and how far it has spread, more people need to be tested. But in Pennsylvania, health officials are missing key information about the coronavirus outbreak due to the continued scarcity of testing, and because they don’t have enough patient data from the tests that have been done.

Pennsylvania has tested less than 1% of the population, and experts say that’s just not enough to be able to make informed decisions about where to send resources or when to start re-opening communities. “We’re going to have to live with this epidemiological purgatory where we have some disease but not too much and where we have some social distancing but not too much,” said epidemiologist Donald Burke.

Helpful resources

Let’s take a quick break

🏆 Fans will choose the greatest athlete in Philly sports history, using a 64-player, interactive bracket that launches on Inquirer.com Tuesday.

📰 From the Inquirer archives: A group of high school students helped give $30,000 to 13 Philadelphia charities.

🎥 Watch Groundhog Day this weekend as part of the “One Movie, One Philadelphia” series.

Social distancing tip of the day: Celebrate Easter with streamed services

More than 60 churches in and around the city will stream their weekend services online, offering hope and at least a small amount of connection as worshipers remain in their homes to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Have a social distancing tip or question to share? Let us know at health@inquirer.com and your input might be featured in a future edition of this newsletter.

What we’re paying attention to

It’s not all horrible

Since the coronavirus shut down the region’s restaurants, some chefs have pivoted to selling specialty items, takeout or delivery, and in the case of one establishment, even board games. It’s a grind, and in most cases the revenue doesn’t move the needle, but it does keep the public happy and a few employees collecting paychecks.

News about coronavirus is changing quickly. Go to inquirer.com/coronavirus to make sure you are seeing the newest information.