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The crocus flower is one of the first to show its colors in early spring. This flower bed along Main Street in Ligonier was bursting with color and attracted the attention of everyone who walked by with a cell phone, as well as a few bees. Saturday was the official first day of spring, also known as the vernal equinox, which is when the sun is positioned directly over the Earth’s equator.


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Coronavirus case averages increase again in third week of March

Following weeks of declining average daily coronavirus (COVID-19) case totals, Westmoreland County has seen case numbers trending upward in back-to-back weeks, according the Pennsylvania Department of Health data.

The county added 559 new coronavirus cases over the third full week of March, an average of 79.85 cases per day. That daily average was up from 62.85 in the second week of March and 57.85 for the period of March 1-7. Prior to the past two weeks, average daily cases in the county had been steadily declining since mid-January.

As of Sunday’s update to the state health department’s COVID-19 Dashboard, there had been 28,171 coronavirus cases reported in Westmoreland County since the start of the pandemic — 19,678 confirmed cases and 8,493 probable cases. There have been 89,658 negative tests so far in the county, according to the state health department.

Since the start of 2021, there have been 8,838 new cases reported in Westmoreland County, an average of 110.47 per day this year.

There were six new coronavirus-related deaths reported in the county since Thursday, bringing Westmoreland County’s total since the start of the pandemic to 698, according to the state health department, and the total in 2021 to 275.

The Westmoreland County Coroner’s Office at 11 p.m. Thursday updated its COVID-19 death total for the county, increasing the total by two, from 425 to 427.

The 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, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

Statewide, coronavirus cases reached 986,857 as of Sunday’s update to the Pennsylvania Department of Health’s COVID-19 Dashboard. That case total includes 843,135 confirmed cases in the state and 143,722 probable cases. So far, 4,053,373 people in the state have tested negative for coronavirus.

According to the state health department, there have been 24,788 coronavirus-related deaths throughout the state since the start of the pandemic.

A push is underway from state officials to get through the first phase of COVID-19 vaccine distribution by scheduling appointments for all interested Pennsylvanians in the most at-risk category by the end of the month.

Phase 1A of the rollout focuses on getting vaccines to those most at-risk of illness, according to the state health department, such as health care workers and Pennsylvanians living in long-term care facilities, persons age 65 and older, and those age 16-64 with high-risk conditions.

An order issued last Monday by Acting Secretary of Health Alison Beam directed vaccine providers to “use best efforts” to make sure anyone in Phase 1A who wants to make a vaccination appointment is able to do so by March 31.

The order calls for vaccine providers that have received first-dose allocations of vaccine for at least the past two weeks to “contact by phone or e-mail every (Phase 1A) individual for whom it has contact information and offer that individual an appointment.”

The appointments don’t need to be scheduled to occur before the end of March, according to the order, and providers can schedule appointments “as far into the future as necessary to accommodate all Phase 1A individuals” requesting an appointment. The order also requires vaccine providers to open up appointments to patients outside their current patient network.

COVID-19 vaccine availability and logistical challenges have kept the state in Phase 1A of the state health department’s vaccine rollout plan, and county officials have criticized the state health department over the amount of vaccine that has been distributed to Westmoreland County compared to other counties in the state.

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 Chief Medical Officer Dr. Carol Fox recommended those in Phase 1A still seeking to be vaccinated visit the health system’s website, www.excelahealth.org, frequently for updates regarding vaccine availability.

The state health department’s COVID-19 Vaccine Dashboard indicates there have been 2,751,183 partial coronavirus vaccinations administered in the state, including 88,305 in Westmoreland County as of Sunday’s update.

The state recently passed 1.5 million “full vaccinations,” and as of Sunday’s update, 1,510,487 people were considered full vaccinations after receiving vaccinations in the state according to the vaccine dashboard. That total includes 96,753 out-of-state residents, according to the site. Of the full vaccinations in Pennsylvania, 44,394 were administered in Westmoreland County, according to the site.

COVID-19 hospitalizations throughout the state increased over the weekend from 1,486 on Thursday to 1,554 as of Sunday’s update, according to the state health department. Of coronavirus patients hospitalized Sunday throughout the state, 320 were in adult intensive care units and 194 were on ventilators.

The moving 14-day average of COVID-19 hospitalizations statewide reached a peak of 6,105.6 on Christmas Day and has steadily declined since.

Westmoreland County’s coronavirus hospitalization numbers on the state health department’s dashboard saw a sharp drop late last week. After weeks of listing triple-digit coronavirus patients in Westmoreland County, the dashboard decreased the county’s coronavirus patient hospitalization figure from 117 on Wednesday to 26 on Thursday. As of Sunday’s update, the dashboard showed 26 coronavirus patients hospitalized in Westmoreland County, with two of those patients in adult intensive care units and three on ventilators.

According to a Pennsylvania Department of Health spokesperson, hospitalization figures for Westmoreland County have been incorrect in recent weeks and the department is working to determine the cause of the discrepancy.


Covid19
Pitt expert to discuss history of RNA vaccines in online event

Westmoreland County Commissioners Sean Kertes and Doug Chew announced a planned online educational event featuring information about the history of RNA vaccines from University of Pittsburgh Associate Senior Vice Chancellor for Science Strategy and Planning in the Health Sciences, Dr. Jeremy Berg.

The free, online event scheduled for 7 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 24, will provide background on RNA vaccine technology as it relates to coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccines, as well as a history of the technology before it became part of the popular lexicon amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Berg is the former director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences at the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), has been named by the Board of Directors of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) as editor-in-chief of the prestigious Science family of journals, and holds positions at the University of Pittsburgh as The Pittsburgh Foundation Professor of Personalized Medicine and Director of the Institute for Personalized Medicine, Professor of Computational and Systems Biology, and Professor of Chemistry.

Advance registration for the “Understanding mRNA Vaccines, an Evening with Dr. Berg” online event is available by visiting https://us02web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZIpc-isqz0qG92FBLpwE_wlyg4ln9Bfb3yx. A Facebook page for the event is available at www.facebook.com/events/1403315250047603.

Questions can be submitted in advance using the registration link, and video of the event will be posted online for those unable to view the discussion live.


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Online petition garnering support to rename highway after late state Rep. Mike Reese

More than 2,300 people have signed an online petition garnering support to rename a state route in Pennsylvania’s 59th Legislative District after the late Rep. Mike Reese.

Nick Molitor of Mount Pleasant created the change.org petition, with a goal of obtaining 2,500 signatures. He wants to rename a state route after Reese, who died Jan. 2 at age 42 of an apparent brain aneurysm.

“It speaks volumes about how much this guy touched everyone,” Molitor said of the community’s response to the online petition.

Molitor originally created the petition to have Route 981 named after Reese — who lived in Mount Pleasant Township with his wife, Angela, and three children. He took inspiration from the Amos K. Hutchinson Bypass, a toll road on Route 66 named after the former state representative.

But after Molitor discovered that Reese in 2016 sponsored a bill to rename a four-mile stretch of Route 981 in Mount Pleasant and Unity townships after local World War II veteran James P. Takitch, he changed the petition to be open to renaming any state route in the 59th District after Reese.

Though he never met Reese personally, Molitor said he respects that the former state representative was “willing to work with anyone, no matter what political affiliation they were.”

“It takes a lot of patience and true neighborly love to even give somebody a chance to speak about their issues,” he said.

Angela Reese said she has not been in contact with Molitor, but said the petition to rename a road after her late husband “was really sweet. I thought it was such a nice gesture.”

She called Molitor’s petition and the community’s support a “really nice surprise.” However, she said renaming Route 981 might not be likely — as she recalled her late husband’s effort to rename the highway after Takitch.

“I said, well, it’s not going to quite work that way, but maybe we could do something else,” she said.

Reese said the petition has caught the eye of some state lawmakers.

“Some of the House members in Harrisburg got word of it and are working on it,” she said. “A couple of them have reached out to me.”

The Reese family plans on meeting in the coming days to weigh potential roads that could be named after the Republican who was elected for a seventh-term in the state House of Representatives, running unopposed in the November election.

“It’s been unbelievable how much this community has shown us support for my family and for Mike,” she said. “It was really a nice surprise to me. Seeing the (petitions’) numbers go up and up and up — this community is amazing.”

Together, she and Mike Reese raised three children, Addy, Michael and Claire.

“What better way to honor someone,” Molitor said of renaming a state route after Reese, “To have it for their children to remember.”

Molitar said he was inspired to create the petition partly by the community’s response to Reese’s sudden passing, including the green-and-white campaign signs that friends and neighbors continue to display in Reese’s hometown of Mount Pleasant.

“It’s touching, because a lot of people in that neighborhood really cared about him,” he said.

Leslie Baum Rossi was chosen as the Republican candidate to run in the May 18 special election to fill the vacant 59th District House seat. She will run against Democratic candidate and Ligonier Borough councilwoman Mariah Fisher, and Libertarian Robb Luther.

“My hope is whoever fills his shoes would be somebody that is willing to work on both sides, who’s willing to share views on both sides,” Molitor said.

The 59th District encompasses portions of Somerset and Westmoreland counties, including Cook, Donegal, Fairfield, Ligonier, Mount Pleasant and St. Clair townships, along with parts of Hempfield and Unity townships and Bolivar, Donegal, Laurel Mountain, Ligonier, New Florence and Seward boroughs.


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Excela administering COVID-19 vaccines at new North Huntingdon location

Excela Health has boosted the number of coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccinations it can administer daily by making use of a vacant building near its Excela Square at Norwin outpatient center in North Huntingdon Township.

On Thursday, the health system began using the former Galaxy Fitness building at 8885 Norwin Ave. in North Huntingdon Township as a vaccination clinic, which will initially be open for pre-scheduled appointments Tuesday through Thursday each week, Excela VP of Cardiovascular Services and COVID Vaccine Coordinator Denise Addis said.

The space available at the new clinic allows the health system to roughly double its appointment capacity compared to the space that had been used for vaccinations at the Excela Square at Latrobe facility in Unity Township. Addis said second-dose appointments for people who have already received a first dose of their COVID-19 vaccine at the Unity Township clinic will continue at that location through the end of the month, but all new first-dose appointments are being scheduled for the new North Huntingdon Township clinic. 

Individuals should report to the vaccination site that was confirmed at the time of their first appointment. That means some individuals who have received a first dose at the Unity Township clinic will need to travel to receive a second dose of the vaccine at the new vaccine clinic in North Huntingdon Township.

“We needed more space to be able to immunize a larger percentage of our community at one time, in one setting,” Addis said of the move to the larger clinic in North Huntingdon Township. “...As the vaccine becomes more readily available, we can do more per day in a larger space.”

Excela had been administering around 1,000 vaccinations each day of operation at the Unity Township clinic. The additional space at the new clinic will allow staff members to administer roughly 2,000 doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine in a 12-hour period. Addis said as more vaccine becomes available, the goal is to offer appointments at the new clinic five days a week.

Excela’s expansion to the larger vaccine clinic comes as a push is underway from state officials to get through the first phase of COVID-19 vaccine distribution by scheduling appointments for all interested Pennsylvanians in the most at-risk category by the end of the month.

Phase 1A of the rollout focuses on getting vaccines to those most at-risk of illness, according to the state health department, such as health care workers and Pennsylvanians living in long-term care facilities, persons age 65 and older, and those age 16-64 with high-risk conditions. Gov. Tom Wolf earlier this month announced that everyone in Phase 1A who wants to receive a vaccination should be able to have an appointment scheduled by the end of March.

An order issued last week by Acting Secretary of Health Alison Beam formalized Wolf’s announcement, directing vaccine providers to “use best efforts” to make sure anyone in Phase 1A who wants to make a vaccination appointment is able to do so by March 31.

The order calls for vaccine providers that have received first-dose allocations of vaccine for at least the past two weeks to “contact by phone or e-mail every (Phase 1A) individual for whom it has contact information and offer that individual an appointment.”

The appointments don’t need to be scheduled to occur before the end of March, according to the order, and providers can schedule appointments “as far into the future as necessary to accommodate all Phase 1A individuals” requesting an appointment. The order also requires vaccine providers to open up appointments to patients outside their current patient network.

To meet the state’s directive, Excela will be pushing out a “registry” for those still awaiting a vaccination appointment, Addis said.

“We will be turning on what I’m calling the registry, which will allow every person to register for an appointment,” she said Friday. “And then when the vaccine becomes available, our system will push out to them ‘Your appointment is on a certain date and time and location.’ It will also include your second appointment date and time.”

Individuals in Phase 1A of the state’s vaccine rollout can make vaccination appointments or be added to Excela’s registry of those awaiting appointments by visiting excelahealth.org or by calling 724-689-1690.

Those arriving for their first dose should bring their insurance cards and driver’s license or other official photo ID, according to the COVID-19 vaccine information page on the Excela website.

As of Friday, Addis said, Excela had administered roughly 20,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine since vaccinations first became available.

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Health’s COVID-19 Vaccine Dashboard, more than 4.2 million vaccine doses had been administered statewide as of Sunday, and there were 44,394 people in Westmoreland County who were considered “fully vaccinated” for coronavirus.


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Two Mainline pharmacies to schedule over 5,000 vaccine appointments this week

Two area Mainline Pharmacy Group locations will administer more than 5,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine this week.

Appointments at Bushy Run Pharmacy and Blairsville Pharmacy can be scheduled online at mainlinepharmacy.com for people in Phase 1A of the state’s vaccine rollout — which includes adults 65 and older, those with certain underlying conditions, as well as health care workers.

Residents without internet access can also call the stores to register.

The two pharmacies expect to administer about 12,000 vaccines per week.

Last week, the pharmacy group eclipsed 30,000 total shots provided.

As of Sunday, more than 4.2 million vaccinations have been administered in Pennsylvania, including 2.7 million people receiving at least one shot, and 1.5 million being fully vaccinated, according to state Department of Health data.

In Westmoreland County, more than 46,000 residents received at least one dose, while more than 44,000 are fully inoculated.

The Mainline Pharmacy Group operates pharmacies across four counties in southwestern Pennsylvania. Along with Blairsville Pharmacy in downtown Blairsville and Bushy Run Pharmacy in Harrison City, Mainline’s other locations include Somerset and Davidsville in Somerset County and Ebensburg, Cresson, Nanty Glo and Portage in Cambria County.

The pharmacy group will continue to hold vaccine clinics at several locations, including those held through partnerships with the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg and St. Vincent College.


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