Pennsylvania boosting efforts to promote voting by mail

AP News
April 22, 2020 - 3:15 pm
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HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Gov. Tom Wolf's administration is boosting its efforts to get voters to cast their primary election ballots by mail, saying it would help prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.

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The administration sent 4.2 million postcards to primary voters and is mounting an awareness campaign on radio, television, social media, streaming services, mobile apps and email, officials said Wednesday.

Wolf's administration has resisted calls from several heavily populated counties to mail a June 2 primary ballot to every registered voter and move to an all-mail, or nearly all-mail, election.

But the state's efforts to get voters to apply for a mail-in ballot or absentee ballot have gotten traction, with more than 462,000 voters applying for a mail-in ballot and more than 139,000 applying for an absentee ballot, according to Wolf administration figures.

Wolf's administration has rejected the idea of mailing out ballots, saying it worried about ensuring that voting is accessible to the disabled and that ballots are mailed to the correct addresses.

Republican and Democratic party officials in Pennsylvania have encouraged people to vote by mail amid concerns from county officials who fear the virus will make it difficult to find polling places and get poll workers to staff them. Election officials in various counties say they probably will be forced to operate far fewer polling places than normal.

During the 2016 primary, 84,000 votes were cast under the absentee ballot system, which is available only to those who offer an acceptable reason they would not be able to vote in person. Mail-in ballots were authorized in a sweeping new election law Wolf signed last fall.

Registered voters can apply online for a mail-in or absentee ballot through 5 p.m. May 26.

Wolf's administration said it will use federal aid to provide counties with funding to promote mail-in voting, purchase protective supplies for poll workers and hire additional election staff.

The state government is also buying infection-protection kits for all counties to use in precinct polling places.

Other coronavirus-related developments in Pennsylvania:

Cases

Pennsylvania's COVID-19 death toll rose by 58 to 1,622, the state health department reported Wednesday, with more than 1,150 additional people testing positive for the virus that causes the disease.

Statewide, more than 35,600 people have tested positive, according to the latest health department data. The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.

For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up in a couple of weeks. Older adults and people with existing health problems are at higher risk of more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death.

Montgomery County to report deaths believed to be connected to COVID-19 

Montgomery County officials say two more residents died after testing positive for coronavirus, bringing the total to 174. The county is also starting to report deaths that are believed to be connected to the disease. 

“We’ve been working for the past several days to get two lists together,” said Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoosh.

The first list will continue to be the number of deaths after a positive test.

“I think it’s really important for a lot of science and epidemiological reasons that we know clearly how many people were proven to die of COVID-19,” she explained. 

But she said the county will also report the number of cases where COVID-19 is listed as cause of death without a positive test.

“Doctors do that all the time. We don’t always know for sure what the cause of death is,” she said. 

Arkoosh said cause of death is not always known, and doctors regularly need to make educated guesses on causes of death, but she thinks it’s important to keep two lists of proven cases and suspected cases.

Asked if there’s concern that may make people more skeptical of the reported numbers, Arkoosh said they’re trying to be as transparent as possible and give as much information as they can.

Hospitals face $10 billion hit

The new coronavirus could cost Pennsylvania hospitals more than $10 billion this year, a trade group said Wednesday, repeating its call for the Wolf administration and state lawmakers to provide tax relief and other financial support.

An analysis commissioned by The Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania said the cancellation of elective surgeries and deferral of medical treatments — from which hospitals derive a large portion of their income — resulted in a nearly $1 billion revenue hit in March alone. Many hospitals and health networks have already furloughed and laid off workers, and the report warned that some hospitals might have to close.

“We are calling on the governor and the legislature to act now,” Andy Carter, the group's president and CEO, told reporters on Wednesday. “I ask policymakers to use the tools at their disposal to ensure we plant the seeds of a strong recovery for Pennsylvania's health care workforce and its community of hospitals.”

Pennsylvania hospitals said they expect to get more than $3 billion in federal coronavirus funding, leaving them with a projected net loss from the pandemic of $7 billion this year without tax relief and additional government aid.

Mass testing site

A new mass testing site in hard-hit northeastern Pennsylvania tested 126 people for the virus in its first two days of operation, health officials said Wednesday.

The drive-thru testing site is for health care workers and first responders with symptoms of COVID-19, and symptomatic people ages 65 and older. The site is in the parking lot of the Mohegan Sun Arena at Casey Plaza, outside Wilkes-Barre.

Several counties in northeastern Pennsylvania, including Lehigh, Monroe and Luzerne — where the testing site is — have some of the highest rates of infection in the state.

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KYW Newsradio's Jim Melwert contributed to this report.