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Just like the sun she is drawing, Addie Zutich, 8, of Latrobe is all smiles. 

Akiva Zutich, 5, of Latrobe draws a house along the Lincoln Avenue Trail in Latrobe during the Latrobe Art Center and Latrobe-GLSD Parks and Recreation's "Chalk the Walk" event held Saturday. Participants were encouraged to beautify the trial with one-of-a-kind art.

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Polls, ballot drop box open until 8 p.m. for Election Day

Westmoreland County voters can head to the polls to cast their ballots in today’s primary election or deposit completed mail-in ballots in the drop box at the Westmoreland County Courthouse in Greensburg until 8 p.m.

Polling places opened at 7 a.m.

Voters who received mail-in ballots for the May 18 primary election should drop their completed ballots off at the Westmoreland County Courthouse in Greensburg before 8 p.m. today.

According to the Westmoreland County Election Bureau, 18,604 mail-in ballots were sent out and 10,780 had been returned to the Election Bureau as of May 16.

Voters who requested a mail-in ballot before the May 11 deadline and who haven’t received one by mail should contact the Election Bureau immediately. Mail-in ballots can be re-issued until polls close at 8 p.m. today, Tuesday, May 18.

A drop box for mail-in ballots will remain available in the lobby of the Westmoreland County Courthouse in Greensburg until 8 p.m.

The county first implemented the regional drop boxes for mail-in ballots for the November 2020 general election. The drop box locations will again be staffed by a county employee and monitored by video surveillance.

Voters who already submitted a mail-in or absentee ballot cannot vote at their polling place on election day.

Those who did not return their mail-in or absentee ballot and wish to vote in person have two options:

  • Bring your ballot and the pre-addressed outer return envelope to your polling place to be voided. After you surrender your ballot and envelope and sign a declaration, you can then vote a regular ballot;
  • If you don’t surrender your ballot and return envelope, you can only vote by provisional ballot at your polling place. Your county board of elections will then verify that you did not vote by mail before counting your provisional ballot.

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'Road to Resilience' was theme for MHA’s Innovations 2021

Mental Health America (MHA) of Southwestern PA held its virtual Innovations event April 29, and the recipients of the annual awards exemplify this year’s theme of “The Road to Resilience.”

“They are doing transformational and inspiring work,” said Laurie Barnett Levine, MSW, LSW, the nonprofit’s CEO. “They have made a difference. These winners have helped us to become more resilient, especially in this past year. These innovators give us hope and strength as we look towards the future.”

The Lifetime Achievement Award was presented to Pat Valentine for “a lifetime of excellence in leadership, clinical competence, advocacy and devotion” to services for individuals with mental illness.

Her career includes working with what was then Allegheny Valley MH/MR, and serving as behavioral health deputy for Allegheny County. In the latter position, she implemented Behavioral Health Choices and developed programs to discharge people from state mental hospitals into community programs. She also created enhancements in services for people involved in the criminal justice system.

“Her impact on the human service system has been immense and profound,” Levine said.

Valentine credited her coworkers and staff in other agencies for the many program developments.

“I did not accomplish anything by myself,” she said. “I was always surrounded by people who worked as hard and I did, or harder. I am blessed to work with dedicated persons, providers, agencies that provide advocacy, with foundations and other funders that are incredibly generous.”

Valentine noted the importance of teamwork.

“Sometimes I led, sometimes I was part of a team, or I was behind a team,” she said.

The Advocacy Award was presented to Pressley Ridge CEO Susanne Cole, MA, MBA, for her dedication in promoting recovery, resilience and hope to improve the lives of others impacted by mental health and substance use issues.

“She and Pressley Ridge commit to do whatever it takes to help children and families be successful not just in southwestern Pennsylvania, but across Pennsylvania and in five other states,” Levine said. “Susanne has devoted her career to serving our most vulnerable children and families and is passionate about helping those who face challenges to reach their full potential.”

Phil Koch, vice president of policy and community impact at The Pittsburgh Foundation, received the Education Award for his contributions in creation education, advocacy and networking in mental health, substance use programs and human services. He was also executive director of the Community Foundation of Westmoreland County.

“Through the creation of the WestCo Nonprofit Network, Phil has greatly increased the collaboration, growth and knowledgebase of the leaderships of the nonprofits of Westmoreland County,” Levine said.

MHA received a grant through the foundation to create The Art Cellar Project that during the pandemic collaborated with Seton Hill University to offer a virtual art program.

“When people think about foundations they always think of grants,” Koch said. “Foundations can provide more than just money.”

During the restrictions caused by COVID-19, he noted, Westmoreland County nonprofits lost $40 million. Many turned to WestCo to learn how to fight through the barriers of the pandemic.

“Nonprofits are resilient,” Koch said. “They are the backbone of Westmoreland County.”

The Prevention Award was given to the Aevidum chapter at Greater Latrobe School District. The student movement was established for identification, intervention and prevention for community or individual mental health or substance use issues. It was originally founded by students at a school in Lancaster County after they lost a classmate to suicide, and has spread nationally. A chapter was founded in Latrobe four years ago after a similar loss.

“Aevidum means ‘I’ve got your back,’” Levine said. “According to their website, Aevidum shatters the silence that surrounds depression, suicide and other issues facing youth. They strive to create healthy communities where everyone feels accepted, appreciated, acknowledged and cared for in schools. Aevidum of Greater Latrobe School District has done just that.”

School counselor Jackie Rider accepted the award on behalf of the students.

“I am constantly amazed by the students’ passion, purpose and commitment to support, assist and to help and guide their fellow students,” she said. “We support our fellow students with school-wide campaigns to reduce the stigma of mental illness and to let students know that there is no difference between mental health and physical health.”

Mark Fuller, MD, FACP, is medical director of the Center for Recovery Medicine at Allegheny Health Network. He received the Recovery Award for representing advancements or originality in working with the principles of recovery from mental illness and or substance use disorders. He has an extensive background in addiction medicine, behavioral health and population health management.

“Dr. Fuller has been a passionate advocate for individuals with mental health and substance use issues,” Levine said. “He has attended most of our Innovations Award programs, and has also been a workshop presenter at our conferences where he has shared his expertise.”

Fuller noted that in past years, he has cheered on the other winners and admired their accomplishments.

“For me to have that same honor to be here is really touching,” he said. “I am standing on the shoulders of giants when I think about this and about all the individuals that I have had an opportunity to work with over the years, and with those who struggled and continue to struggle. They share the award. They taught me about life and about struggling.”

The awards segment of the virtual event was recorded and will be available on mhaswpa.org in the near future.

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Excela Health's bereavement counselors help those grieving amid the pandemic

As Pennsylvania’s new coronavirus cases fall to October lows and vaccinations steadily rise in Westmoreland County, grief triggered by loss during the pandemic continues to linger within the community.

“One of the things that happens when there’s a crisis, whether it’s an individual crisis or a national crisis, is it brings the idea of death close to home,” said Maureen Ceidro, an Excela Health Home Care and Hospice bereavement counselor.

Ceidro will explore that topic during Excela Health’s virtual symposium on Wednesday, “Grief in Our Neighborhood: the Pandemic Response.”

This workshop is to assist professionals who are helping individuals and families in the community to navigate the complexities of the COVID-19 pandemic, while also learning usable tools for their work and themselves.

Ceidro is one of three presenters at Wednesday’s virtual conference from 8-11:30 a.m. Her topic, “The Valley of the Shadow: Spirituality and Existential Fear,” deals with how people are impacted by death, including ways to cope, especially amid the pandemic.

Today is the deadline to register for this workshop co-sponsored by the National Association of Social Workers Pennsylvania (NASW-PA) Chapter. Three continuing education credits will be awarded for the completion of this course for social work and nursing.

The cost is $15 for NASW members and $25 for non-members.

To register or questions, contact bereavement@excelahealth.org with attendee name, affiliation, and requested CEU course.

Ceidro said people tend to not dwell upon the prospect of death, but a crisis such as the pandemic brings those thoughts to mind.

“It has been a great difficulty to put that aside during all of this when you look at the numbers daily of people who are dying, not only in our city, but in the country and the world,” she said. “So I’m taking a look at existential fear and what that means, and how do we understand suffering … and meaning-making in the midst of a crisis such as this?”

Grief, according to Kristy Walter, a bereavement counselor at Excela Health Home Care and Hospice, extends beyond the loss of human life.

“We’re seeing these levels of grief from our normal culture, the way it works, to loss of human beings, loss of jobs, loss of what normal is, loss of a sense of safety — all of these things,” Walter said.

But helping others cope with grief has taken a toll on people like Ceidro and Walter, who are helping community members navigate through the pandemic, including the loss of loved ones.

Excela Health’s bereavement counselors work to inform, support and guide patients and families through the grief process before, at the time of, and after the death of a loved one. They also work to anticipate and respond to community education and supportive needs related to bereavement.

“Who takes care of the folks who are taking care of the people who struggle?” asked Ceidro. “That’s a really big piece of this … to take a look at what does that look like and how is it that we navigate through it.”

Walter’s symposium topic, “When There are No Words: Turning to Creativity in Times of a Pandemic,” centers on the ways creativity has been a coping mechanism during the course of the pandemic.

“Creativity from the beginning (of the pandemic) seemed kind of nonessential, everything shut down, and there have been repercussions from that,” Walter said. “And the importance of these therapeutic modalities that we do naturally, the incorporation of music, and movement, and art, the importance of creativity and how that can help us feel connected — to both our own selves in a way of coping and giving us those tools,” she said.

Keturah Welton, an art therapist, will also present, “The Shared Traumatic Experience: Tools for Creative Resiliency, during the symposium.

Social distancing, mask requirements and other pandemic-related restrictions have created barriers for bereavement counselors to help those who are grieving. At the beginning of the pandemic, it required counselors to start meeting virtually with patients.

“One of the things that’s most important for people who are grieving is to be in the company of other people,” Ceidro said. “Your community, your support system is so important. And that support system has fallen away for many people, even in the family, especially in the early stages of the pandemic when they couldn’t see their loved ones, couldn’t hug (their loved ones),” Ceidro said.

She added that Excela Health’s bereavement groups bring people together with a shared sorrow.

“Kristy and I have struggled with this ourselves over the past year on how to make this work in a way that reaches our people that also serves them well,” Ceidro said. “It’s a struggle, but we have adapted.”

One way they have adapted is through the creation of a bereavement group on Facebook called, “Excela Health Grief Support.” Its purpose is to promote positive growth through social media interaction and connection with each one another, and to “help all of us realize that we are not alone in this journey.”

The private group now has more than 240 members.

“I started offering weekly art therapy … where I do art therapy and we talk about grief throughout that process,” Walter said. “We do ‘Coffee with Kristy’ and ‘Tea with Maureen.’”

Ceidro and Walter have been hosting live videos with open discussions among those who are grieving to talk about their experiences. The group also offers a variety of grief support videos for people to browse on their own time.

“It was a great platform to introduce these ways to help people cope through different levels of grief, “Walter said. “I love doing it. … It’s been beautiful to see what we see in person, consoling one another, sharing stories, and now we’re seeing it on that virtual platform. It’s really rewarding that it’s happened organically.”

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County sees single-digit increase in coronavirus cases Monday

Westmoreland County added just seven new coronavirus (COVID-19) cases Monday, marking the first day this year with fewer than 10 new cases reported, according to Pennsylvania Department of Health data.

The seven new cases reported Monday bring the county’s total since the start of the pandemic to 33,652.

Of the county’s case total, 22,772 are classified as confirmed cases and 10,880 are considered probable cases.

There have been 98,038 negative tests so far in the county, according to the state health department.

The county averaged 52.57 new coronavirus cases per day during the second full week of May, and over the past seven days (May 11-17), the county has added 305 coronavirus cases, or an average of 43.57 per day.

Since the start of 2021, there have been 14,319 new cases reported in Westmoreland County, which equates to an average of 104.51 per day this year.

With two new coronavirus-related deaths reported Monday, the county’s total since the start of the pandemic increased to 758 and the total in 2021 grew to 335.

The Westmoreland County Coroner’s Office last updated its COVID-19 death total on the county website at 5 a.m. Wednesday, May 5, increasing the total from 440 to 442.

The Westmoreland coroner’s total includes coronavirus deaths that occur in Westmoreland County, regardless of the deceased person’s county of residence, while the state health department’s coronavirus death figures include any person considered a resident of Westmoreland County, regardless of where their death occurred.

The youngest person to die of COVID-19 in Westmoreland County was 36, according to the county coroner’s office, and the oldest was 109.

The virus-related death rate in Westmoreland County has slowed since December, which was the county’s worst month of the pandemic with 224 deaths reported (7.2 per day) and more than 10,000 new cases. The first coronavirus deaths for Westmoreland County were reported April 5, 2020, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

The statewide coronavirus case total since the start of the pandemic reached 1,187,115 as of Monday’s update to the Pennsylvania Department of Health’s COVID-19 Dashboard. That case total includes 997,127 confirmed cases in the state and 189,988 probable cases. So far, 4,519,018 people in the state have tested negative for coronavirus.

There were 17 new coronavirus-related deaths reported throughout Pennsylvania in Monday update, bringing the statewide total since the start of the pandemic to 26,833.

Of the state’s coronavirus deaths, 13,215 (49.24%) are associated with long term care facilities. Data for long-term care facilities on the state health department’s site was last updated at noon on Monday.

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, there had been 71,429 coronavirus cases among residents and 15,105 cases among staff members at 1,590 long-term care facilities throughout the state as of Thursday’s update.

In Westmoreland County, according to the state health department, 54 long-term care facilities have accounted for 2,259 positive COVID-19 cases among residents, 362 cases among staff members and 320 coronavirus deaths.

All Pennsylvanians 16 and older are now eligible to schedule COVID-19 vaccination appointments, and more than 4.2 million people in the state are considered fully vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus, according to the state health department’s COVID-19 Vaccine Dashboard.

In Westmoreland County, according to the dashboard, 126,089 people are considered fully vaccinated while another 36,844 are considered partially covered.

As of Monday’s update, 4,204,233 people statewide were considered full vaccinations while another 1,664,115 were considered partially covered.

Westmoreland County added a COVID-19 vaccination information page to its county website, available at https://www.co.westmoreland.pa.us/2934/Vaccine-Info.

Excela Health in March introduced a vaccine registry to collect information for all individuals interested in receiving a COVID-19 vaccine administered through the health system, allowing anyone to join Excela’s waiting list regardless of their eligibility to receive the vaccine at the time.

Individuals can access the vaccine registry and sign up online at vaccinate.excelahealth.org or call the Excela Health vaccine information line at 724-689-1690 to register. Those who register online will be contacted by email when it’s their turn to schedule a vaccination appointment, while those who call in to join the registry will be contacted by phone to schedule an appointment.

Giant Eagle, Rite Aid and CVS pharmacies have all recently announced limited walk-in availability for COVID-19 vaccinations.

Giant Eagle announced that walk-in COVID-19 vaccinations are open to people 18 and older. Individuals arriving for a walk-in vaccination should bring a valid form of identification and their medical insurance information.

Rite Aid announced on April 30 that the chain would accommodate limited walk-ins for coronavirus vaccinations at all of its more than 2,500 stores in 17 states, and CVS made a similar announcement.

COVID-19 hospitalizations throughout the state continued to decline Monday, according to the state health department.

As of Monday’s update, there were 1,436 coronavirus patients hospitalized throughout the state, down from 1,499 on Sunday. Of the coronavirus patients statewide on Monday, 342 were in adult intensive care units and 226 were on ventilators.

The moving 14-day average of COVID-19 hospitalizations statewide reached a peak of 6,105.6 on Christmas Day and had steadily declined until March 19 (1,496.9) before rising for several weeks.

The 14-day average for statewide coronavirus hospitalizations decreased to 1,798.2 as of Monday’s update.

While statewide hospitalizations were down, Westmoreland County’s coronavirus hospitalization total have increased. There were 30 coronavirus patients hospitalized in the county as of Monday’s update after hospitalizations increased from 23 on Thursday to 29 as of Sunday’s update. Of COVID-19 patients in Westmoreland County hospitals on Monday, three were in adult intensive care units and four were on ventilators, according to the state health department. Of the 96 ventilators available in the county, according to Department of Health data, 19 were in use by COVID-19 and non-COVID patients as of Monday’s update.