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Federal judge rules in favor of Democratic Pa. Senate candidate GOP refused to seat

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HARRISBURG — A federal judge has upheld the validity of hundreds of undated mail ballots cast in Allegheny County, ruling in favor of a Democratic candidate for Pennsylvania Senate whose win was previously certified by the state.

GOP leaders in the chamber last week refused to seat the winner, incumbent Jim Brewster, during a chaotic session that also saw the temporary removal of Lt. Gov. John Fetterman as presiding officer.

In response to the ruling, the Senate’s top lawmaker, Jake Corman of Centre County, said Brewster will be sworn in this week.

Republican candidate Nicole Ziccarelli filed the federal suit seeking to throw out 2,349 mail ballots that Allegheny County election officials counted even though they did not have a handwritten date, as required by state law. Just over 300 of those votes were cast in Ziccarelli’s race against Brewster, giving him a 69 vote lead.

Ziccarelli had argued that her due process and equal protection rights were violated because election officials in neighboring Westmoreland County — sections of which fall within the 45th senatorial district — did not count undated ballots.

She lost a similar case that went all the way to the state Supreme Court.

In a 14-page ruling, U.S. District Judge J. Nicholas Ranjan said his court was “bound by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s interpretation of this state law — which directly applies to the very ballots at issue here.”

“Contrary to Ms. Ziccarelli’s reading, the court finds that the Supreme Court expressly held that the undated ballots at issue remain valid ballots that are properly counted under state law,” Ranjan continued. “Thus, because Ms. Ziccarelli’s federal constitutional claims all depend on the invalidity of the ballots under state law, those claims necessarily fail on the merits.”

In a statement, Ziccarelli said she would withdraw a request with the state Senate to overturn the election results and would not appeal the ruling.

Corman, the top GOP lawmaker in the Senate, said the chamber will reconvene Wednesday to swear in Brewster.

“In this case, there was no dispute of facts,” he said in a statement. “There were no allegations of fraud. Instead, we had voters in Allegheny and Westmoreland Counties who made the same mistake on their mail-in ballots being treated differently.”

Corman had previously signaled that if the judge didn’t rule on the case’s merits — finding, instead, it wasn’t a federal matter — the Senate would intervene and decide who to seat.

Senate Democrats accused their Republican counterparts of attempting to steal the election, with Minority Leader Jay Costa (D., Allegheny) saying the party had taken a page from “the Trump playbook.”

“The president pro tempore is to be a leader for the entire body — not of one party,” Costa said of Corman. “Nowhere in the constitution does it say that the leader should be beholden to the partisan whims of his own party.”

While Corman has conceded he doesn’t “have any evidence of misdoing” during the November election, he and other prominent Republicans have repeatedly criticized the Wolf administration and state Supreme Court.

The latter, he and others have argued, overstepped by issuing rulings that accommodated voters during the pandemic. In the case of Brewster and Ziccarelli, three state justices found the lack of a date to be a technical violation of state law, while a fourth said the requirement may not have been clear to voters.

“Senate Republicans believe that ... Secretary of State [Kathy] Boockvar was premature in certifying the election,” Corman said in a statement Tuesday. “By delaying the swearing-in of a senator, we took the time to receive this imminent ruling.”

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American Red Cross needs donors to give healthy blood, plasma for COVID-19 patients

January is National Blood Donor Month and it’s more important now than ever to give blood during the time of COVID-19 and the resulting high rates of hospitalization across the country, according to officials with the American Red Cross.

The American Red Cross asks those who have recovered from the COVID-19 virus to help current COVID-19 patients with whole blood donations since phlebotomists are now able to extract convalescent plasma and red blood cells.

“Convalescent plasma is a term for when a donor’s plasma is used for a therapy for ill patients,” said Biomedical Communications Manager Alana Mauger. “People who are in the hospital with COVID-19, who are usually in the ICU, can get a transfusion of plasma from a donor that has the COVID-19 antibodies.”

The antibodies within the plasma have the potential to help those critically ill with COVID-19 to form their own antibodies and can help them fight off the virus.

Although the blood product can save lives, it is important to note that the plasma is not a vaccine or prevention and can only be used as a treatment for those already infected with COVID-19.

The need for convalescent plasma increases as the country sees over 214,000 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 each day, according to data from the American Red Cross.

In order to combat the rate of plasma shortage, the Red Cross began collecting these antibodies back in June 2020, and found that some of those who tested positive for having the antibodies were asymptomatic when they had COVID-19 and therefore were never aware that they had been infected.

Phlebotomists have been collecting the plasma at Red Cross donation centers which aren’t located in areas like north central Pennsylvania and upstate New York.

“We are now able to extract that plasma from a whole blood donation,” Mauger said.

Those who come in for donations are asked to wear masks/face coverings and officials take their temperatures before entering the blood drive facilities. Shared surfaces are disinfected after every donor and interactions between donors and phlebotomists are limited while maintaining social distancing to keep everyone as safe as possible.

Putting COVID-19 safety precautions aside, Mauger said that the blood donation process itself is unchanged. Donors give blood like normal, and then their blood gets tested for the antibodies.

If the blood tests positive for containing the antibodies, it is then broken down into different components including the red blood cells and convalescent plasma.

The plasma is then able to be used on a COVID-19 patient and the red blood cells are able to be used on a patient(s) for other purposes.

Mauger said that while the Red Cross has a stable blood supply at the moment – they need to collect 128 pints of blood in the northeastern region of Pennsylvania daily – the national shortage specifically concerns the convalescent plasma which is not found in the blood of all those who have recovered from COVID-19.

“We can only take convalescent plasma from people who have been infected by COVID-19, have fully recovered, and have the antibodies, and that’s not a large population of people in the grand scheme of things” Mauger said.

Eligible convalescent plasma donors can give to the Red Cross every week for up to three months. Donors must be in good health and have a verified past diagnosis of COVID-19, granted that they are now fully recovered and symptom-free and have been symptom-free for at least 14 days.

“It’s really not going to do anything to stop the spread,” Mauger said. “This is really all about a therapeutic treatment for patients who are already critically ill with COVID-19, and for those patients, it could be very important. It could be the treatment that helps them on their way to recovery.”

“In general, donating blood, even for people who haven’t had COVID-19 and don’t have these antibodies, is still really important,” she added. “Patients need it everyday for all kinds of things. We think about the traumas and the accidents and things like that, but blood products are often a regular part of ongoing cancer treatments for patients. Those blood products help them battle things like cancer, so it’s really important that we have all kinds of blood products and blood supply available, and right now we’re seeing a shortage of this convalescent plasma.”

Donors are asked to register their appointments on the Red Cross website by entering their area code and choosing a time at one of the available locations. Setting up an appointment in advance is required so staff can maintain social distancing with themselves and the public.

Upcoming blood donation opportunities:

  • Chemung Christian Fellowship at 726 Main Street, Chemung – today from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
  • Waverly United Methodist Church at 158 Chemung Street, Waverly – Friday from 1:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.
  • Sayre Theatre at 205 S. Elmer Ave, Sayre – next Thursday, Jan. 21 from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m.
  • St John Lutheran Church at 207 South Hopkins Street, Sayre – Feb. 8 from noon to 5 p.m. and Feb. 9 from 8:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m.

Additional information on the convalescent plasma shortage and giving to the Red Cross can be found at https://www.redcross.org/.

Pa. State Police resume tracking racial data during traffic stops in response to Spotlight PA report

Spotlight PA is an independent, non-partisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media. Sign up for our free newsletters.

HARRISBURG — The Pennsylvania State Police announced Tuesday that it had resumed collecting racial data during traffic stops, nine years after the department quietly ended the practice and in direct response to a previous investigative report by Spotlight PA.

Many police departments across the nation collect racial data from traffic stops in order to detect potential racial bias in policing. In 2019, Spotlight PA revealed the State Police had ended its collection program in 2012 with no official announcement and for reasons that remain unclear.

In response to the findings, the statewide law enforcement agency pledged to resume the practice.

“Troopers take an oath to enforce the law ‘without any consideration of class, color, creed or condition,’ and this data collection effort is one way to show the public we are upholding that oath,” State Police Commissioner Col. Robert Evanchick said Tuesday in a news release. “Regular and ongoing analysis by a neutral third party is a critical part of this program that emphasizes our department’s commitment to transparency and continuous improvement.”

Kenneth Huston, president of the Pennsylvania chapter of the NAACP, said the department’s announcement was an encouraging development, especially given that accusations of racial profiling have dogged the department in recent years.

“We respect law enforcement — whether it’s local, or state, or federal — but, with the Pennsylvania State Police, there seems to be this narrative that they are racial profiling,” Huston said.

In the summer of 2019, the ACLU of Pennsylvania filed a federal lawsuit against the State Police alleging troopers were violating the law by stopping and holding people solely because they were Latinx. In 2017, the department paid $150,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by a Latino man who alleged he was profiled by troopers and arrested on false charges.

As part of its new collection campaign, which officially began Jan. 1, the State Police has partnered with the University of Cincinnati to analyze its data. The department formerly partnered with the university under its previous collection program.

Huston added it was noteworthy that the agency had teamed up again with the University of Cincinnati to analyze its data, adding further credibility to its efforts, but said it was important for the department make its raw data publicly available so it can be analyzed by advocacy groups, journalists, and other researchers.

“It’s the raw data that we would like to see,” Huston said. “From the NAACP’s perspective, we would like to see the raw data and come to our own conclusions.”

A Spotlight PA review of the studies produced by the University of Cincinnati under its former work with State Police revealed a nuanced — and sometimes conflicting — portrait of the department’s interactions with people of color between 2002 to 2012.

Those analyses found no consistent evidence that troopers stopped drivers, issued citations, or made arrests based on race.

However, they revealed a persistent problem after stops had occurred: Year after year, the researchers found troopers were roughly two to three times more likely to search black or Hispanic drivers than white drivers. At the same time, they concluded, troopers were far less likely to find contraband on black and Hispanic drivers compared to white drivers.

In the final years of data analysis, researchers recommended the State Police conduct a more detailed review to determine which stations had the greatest racial disparities in search rates and then interview the commanders there to better understand why those disparities might exist. In response to questions from Spotlight PA last year, State Police officials said they didn’t know what, if anything, was done in response to those recommendations.

In 2012, the State Police ended its collection and analysis program. Agency officials said they have no record of why the department’s leadership team at the time made that decision. A Spotlight PA survey at the time found the State Police was one of only 11 statewide law enforcement agencies in the U.S. — and by far the largest — that did not collect race data during stops.

Under its new program, the State Police said Tuesday that troopers are collecting more than 30 fields of data related to each traffic stop, including the age, gender, race, and ethnicity of drivers and passengers. Troopers will also record the duration of the stop, whether a vehicle search was conducted and, if applicable, the results of that search.

In a statement, Evanchick said the new program would benefit from advances in technology over the past decade. Under the former program, troopers completed reports by hand, which was a cumbersome and time-intensive process.

Under the new program, collection has been digitally streamlined in order to minimize the impact on the duration of traffic stops.

“We look forward to learning from the data and analysis by the University of Cincinnati,” Evanchick said.

100% ESSENTIAL:Spotlight PA relies on funding from foundationsand readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results. Become a member today at spotlightpa.org/donate.

Abreu appointed to Troy School Board

TROY — Former Troy Intermediate School Principal Mary Abreu has replaced Bill Brasington on Troy’s Board of Education.

Abreu has been appointed as school director representing the district’s Region 1, which includes Alba Borough, Armenia Township, Troy Borough and Troy Township, after former board member Bill Brasington announced his resignation in November, citing hopes that “new energy” will bring positive changes to the board.

Abreu was chosen to carry out the remainder of Brasington’s current term, which will end in 2021, after multiple candidates completed interviews before the board during a Troy School Board meeting in December.

Abreu joins the board with more than three decades of experience in the Troy Area School District, where she has served as not only TIS Principal but also Troy Jr./Sr. High School Assistant Principal and Athletic Director, among other roles.

“I just want to see if I can be a positive contributor for the remainder of Mr. Brasington’s term,” she stated. “After spending 30-plus years in the TASD, I feel I have some background knowledge to contribute and I care about the children of this district and their education.”

FILE - In this July 29, 2020 file photo, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., speaks during a House Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust on Capitol Hill in Washington. A second Democratic member of the House who was forced to go into lockdown during last week’s violent protest has tested positive for COVID-19. Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington says she has tested positive. She criticized Republican members of Congress who declined to wear a mask when it was offered to them. (Mandel Ngan/Pool via AP, File)