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Sen. Browne hosts special COVID-19 virtual town hall

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To update his constituents on the ongoing coronavirus situation and provide additional information on medical, economic and social assistance measures, State Sen. Pat Browne, R-16th, held a special virtual town hall April 15 with a panel of local experts from various community and state organizations.

“These are obviously unprecedented times for our community, our state and the entire nation,” Browne said in his opening statement.

“We are very fortunate to have the people on this call today; people who are leading our community and our state in many different capacities to help us manage this crisis.”

The first expert panelist was Brian Nester, president and CEO of Lehigh Valley Health Network. Nester said LVHN has heading into their seventh week of the “COVID crisis,” but added that the situation appeared to be improving.

Nester said based on LVHN’s data, the number of new coronavirus cases may have reached its peak, “and may be approaching the peak of the number of patients that will be in our hospitals across our network,” adding that if the reports are true the hospital infrastructure would probably not be overwhelmed by virus cases “which would be very good news.”

Nester said LVHN’s supply chain was “working overtime” to ensure health care workers had sufficient amounts of personal protective equipment and said the overall supply of PPE and critical medications appeared steady, particularly medicines for extended mechanical ventilation for intensive care patients.

While the peak may endure for days or weeks, Nester said it appears to be “at a lower level then some of the original model,” and said such a reduction was thanks to the community heeding the calls for social isolation and other mitigation efforts.

However, Nester also said it was essential to continue following mitigation strategies to maintain the low peak because of a lack of a cure for COVID-19, adding that if these restrictions are relaxed there may be a second or third peak of infections.

“We may still need masks, we may still need social isolation because we don’t yet have a treatment,” Nester said. “Until such time we can effectively treat this with a vaccine, we’re going to need to take those precautions.”

Additionally, Nester said while the COVID situation was improving, other issues have emerged from the over 4,000 surgeries which have been postponed due to the crisis.

“We are expecting that we can’t keep pushing patients off with their need for surgery,” Nester said, noting that many serious medical conditions must be addressed “sooner rather than later” and that LVHN was hoping for some relaxation in the disaster mandate to get procedures done.

However, he emphasized that while conducting such procedures during the crisis is a calculated risk between possible exposure and providing timely care, LVHN’s health care staff has “learned how to take care of COVID-19, very sick COVID-19 patients, very sick regular medical/surgical patients that are not COVID-19 at the same time.”

In addition to Nester, Eric Kratz, Executive Director of the PA Senate Labor and Industry Committee, spoke during the town hall to address unemployment and economic assistance during the crisis.

Kratz acknowledged that many unemployed workers were frustrated with the “general unresponsiveness” and delays with the unemployment system and said the system was experiencing “claims volumes never seen before.”

He noted that since March 15 over 1.3 million initial claims have been field, compared to about 750,000 for all of 2019. He noted that the department was working to bring in additional staff to address the backlogs.

Addressing common question and issues related to unemployment delays, Kratz said to file a biweekly claim people would need a PIN number, normally delivered in 7-10 business days, but he said there were delays due to current volumes.

“The department has made clear if you don’t receive your PIN in time to file your biweekly claim, you will be able to file for recent and missed weeks once your PIN is received,” he said.

Additionally, Kratz noted several prominent federal unemployment benefits available as a part of the CARES Act. The first is a $600 weekly additional benefit, which Kratz said will be automatically paid to “anyone eligible to receive any unemployment compensation benefits,” and would be a separate transaction to regular unemployment benefits.

Secondly, he said the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program – intended for self-employed workers, gig workers, independent contractors, individuals with limited work history or anyone ineligible for traditional unemployment compensation – would begin accepting applications likely within a week’s time.

Finally, Kratz said the federal government had put in place 13 weeks of extended benefits for individuals who “have or will in the near future exhaust the regular unemployment compensation benefits weeks.” He noted that the department was still awaiting final federal guidance “but the expectation is that they will be applied retroactively, likely to the last week in March.”

Additionally, Don Cunningham, CEO and president of the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation, spoke about measures being undertaken to keep businesses from closing their doors due to the crisis.

“Today we find ourselves trying to help keep our companies that are here afloat, help them bridge the gap through this time of crisis and quarantine,” he said noting that work is being done by state departments and federal programs to aid businesses.

Cunningham said some emergency financing is available through the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program, which has authorized around $350 billion for small business expenses and job retention.

He encouraged small businesses to apply for PPP loans as soon as they can, noting that while the program is open until June the funding is rapidly reaching full allotment due to the number of applications.

He also noted that businesses need to apply through approved lenders and said a list of local accredited lenders is available on the LVEDC website, lehighvalley.org.

Cunningham said Pennsylvania had set aside a $61 million fund through the Pennsylvania Industrial Development Authority, but that the statewide demand exceeded the available funding within five days of the program’s opening.

He also said some local programs were available, specifically highlighting that Northampton County has a small business emergency relief fund set up, and that the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce has implemented a relief fund of up to $1500 for “main street-type businesses.”

Overall, Cunningham said due to the balanced nature of the Lehigh Valley’s economy “we have almost 40% of our workforce, about 125,000 workers in the region, out working.”

He noted that this included health care workers, food retailers, industrial sector employees and other business segments, while acknowledging that retail, hospitality and service industry jobs form the largest segments of unemployed workers.

“All told, more than 55% of what the governor has deemed as ‘life-sustaining’ industrial sectors employees are out at work…about 193,000 employees in the Lehigh Valley. From an economic perspective, we do have a good base of employment on the workplace floors.”

Finally, Kristen Rotz, President of the United Way of Pennsylvania, spoke about providing basic resource assistance to struggling individuals, particularly food, rental and housing assistance.

She noted that the United Way has a “commitment to try to serve the most vulnerable in our communities,” a definition which has expanded due to COVID-19.

Rotz urged people struggling to provide basic needs for themselves or their families to contact and take advantage of the 211 program – a hotline available by dialing 211 from a landline or cellphone, accessing the resource’s website, or by texting one’s ZIP code to 898211 to start a two-way conversation with a resource specialist for information on nearby assistance.

The 211 resource is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, year-round. “If you are needing specific help with food or other issues, do go ahead and call 211,” Rotz said.

Within the 16th District, Rotz said rent assistance calls have increased and the number of food assistance requests has roughly doubled when compared to ordinary circumstances, “so we know there are a lot of people who are struggling to feed their families right now.”

She also said before COVID-19 about 27% of the district’s population was struggling financially, and that post-COVID, “we don’t know what those numbers look like.”

Rotz said the United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley has also set up a COVID-19 response fund for those in a position to donate, and said the fund, directed by a team of community leaders, will initially be focused on providing for the “central safety net services and supports for all economically vulnerable people.”

She also said the UWGLV has also placed additional focus and resources toward providing resources for social and emotional assistance during the pandemic, such as free community training and resources for child care or home-schooling, which is available online at www.unitedwayglv.org.

Browne thanked the panelists and their respective organizations for their hard work and efforts toward providing stability, safety and support for the residents of his district and statewide during the pandemic.

He also praised the work of essential workers for continuing to provide life-essential services, and his constituents for heeding calls for social distancing and other mitigation efforts.

“Without those actions, and without those sacrifices, our circumstances regarding health and safety might be very different,” Browne concluded.