First Philadelphia inmate dies from COVID-19

By KYW Newsradio 1060

UPDATED: April 15, 10:46 a.m.

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Philadelphia has reported its first coronavirus-related death among inmates in city jails. 

Mayor Jim Kenney announced that the inmate — a woman in her 40s with underlying medical conditions — died Tuesday morning. She had been hospitalized since April 8.

“She had been under constant medical supervision,” said the mayor, “but despite these efforts, she succumbed to the condition.”

City officials declined to share the woman’s name or any details regarding her conviction to protect her family. 

“I want to offer my condolences to her family and friends,” added Kenney. “Incarcerated people are human beings. They are someone’s family member and friend. And we owe them the dignity of acknowledging their life and their passing.”

Department of Prisons Commissioner Blanche Carney said the woman lived at the Riverside Correctional Facility for more than 500 days. Multiple sources identified the woman to KYW Newsradio as 48-year-old Yvonne Harris.

Sources said she would go to Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility to work in janitorial services.

According to Harris’ case files, she was serving three years for assault, reckless endangerment and other crimes. Carney said she was not eligible for early release. Court records show Harris was slated to be paroled on Aug. 5.

The woman’s death is not counted in the city’s daily toll, because they were notified too late. The death will be counted in Wednesday’s total.

We're sad to report the first death of an inmate in our prison system—a woman in her 40s with underlying conditions. Out of respect to her family, we will not release her name.She was in a hospital and under constant medical care since last week. She passed this morning.

— Jim #StayHomePHL Kenney (@PhillyMayor) April 14, 2020

On Tuesday night, activists held a candlelight vigil outside the Riverside Correctional Facility to remember Harris.

People in the Philly Jails flash their lights and bang on walls in coordination with a vigil on the outside mourning the first #COVID19 death. We who believe in freedom cannot rest until @PhillyMayor + @PhilaCourts #FreeOurPeople pic.twitter.com/dvP6jm8fe2

— Decarcerate PA (@DecarceratePA) April 15, 2020

Her death comes a day after the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections announced its first coronavirus-related death of an inmate.

Spread in prisons

“I have a lot of emotions,” said Eric Hill, business agent for Local 159, the union that represents 1,800 correction officers servicing Philadelphia’s prison system. He said he knows of at least 10 officers who have tested positive for COVID-19. 

“I’m concerned that those officers, assigned to supervise that inmate, may have become infected.”

The union is demanding more transparency.

The city has declined to say how many prison staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 — that’s the policy for all city workers. City officials say prisons are using CDC guidelines to determine when it is appropriate to test an inmate.  

Carney said 120 inmates have been tested and 54 are positive. Three are in the hospital. Four inmates are in isolation.

But the total number of inmates who have tested positive is likely in the 80s, because each time someone recovers, the city removes that inmate from the positive list.

Carney said the entire prison system is in quarantine, and inmates’ out-of-cell time is limited. Other precautions are being taken: Inmates were given masks and cleaning solutions to clean their cells.

Last week, Philadelphia courts rolled out new protocols to escalate the early release of inmates to stop the spread of COVID-19. Advocates have been pushing for the expedited releases of inmates who are in jail for economic, non-violent crimes, or those who have already served their minimum sentence.

Between April 4 and 7, 224 inmates were released. As of Monday, the total number of releases since March 16 is 592, leaving the city’s jails population at roughly 4,000 inmates — half of the population in 2015.

The Bucks County Prison population is at 668 inmates — down from more than 1,100 inmates on March 11. As of Monday, nine inmates and 11 staff members had tested positive.

In Montgomery County ,the jail population has seen a 24% decrease, with 501 discharges since March 12. Two inmates inside Montgomery County prisons are currently positive with COVID-19.

Philadelphia case count

Health Commissioner Dr. Tom Farley announced at least 16 more fatalities on Tuesday, bringing Philly’s death toll to 206. Of those 206, 66% were of people over the age of 70, and half were long-term care facility residents.

The Philadelphia Department of Public Health announced another 317 cases of COVID-19, bringing the citywide total to 7,130.

Farley again noted that cases appear to cluster in places like nursing homes, behavioral health facilities and prisons. 

However, he said the new case count often dips on weekends, since some labs don’t return results, but 317 is the lowest weekday increase so far this month. 

“Still, I think that’s evidence we are flattening the curve through our social distancing measures, and congratulations to everyone who is following those recommendations,” he said.

The number of hospital cases rose too, but so far, Farley said the city has been successful in not overwhelming the health system.

“All the hospitals are busy. Some of them are treating dozens of COVID patients. Some are closer to capacity than others, but all are able to handle it. Regionwide, 37% of our hospital beds are available and 30% of our ICU beds are available,” he said.

More advice from city: Stop smoking

Farley said resources are available for Philadelphians who smoke cigarettes but are interested in quitting. 

Smoking can cause serious complications for someone who contracts COVID-19. 

Farley said to visit smokefreephilly.org or call 1-800-QUIT-NOW.

Business relief deadline

Small businesses have until Wednesday night to apply for the Philadelphia COVID-19 Small Business Relief Fund.

The fund will disperse about $12.1 million to local businesses in need due to the effects of coronavirus. More than 6,000 businesses have already applied.

On April 2, City Council approved the Kenney administration’s request for $85 million to fight COVID-19.

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For more resources regarding COVID-19, visit phila.gov/covid-19 or call the Greater Philadelphia Coronavirus Helpline at 1-800-722-7112.
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KYW Newsradio’s Cherri Gregg, Pat Loeb and Rachel Kurland contributed to this report.