With holiday gatherings right around the corner, the state’s record-breaking surge of new cases of COVID-19 is being fueled by increasing of small social gatherings and a declining tendency to wear masks and social distance, health officials said Thursday.
Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said the state has no immediate plan to enact new restrictions to slow the spread of coronavirus, even as the state reported its highest-ever total of new cases on Thursday – 5,488. The state also reported that there were 2,080 people hospitalized as the strain on the health system from the surge of cases intensified.
Levine said that rather than enact new restrictions, the state is focusing on encouraging people to follow the restrictions already in place.
“We want to double down on the mitigation orders we have in place,” Levine said, including the requirements that people wear masks in businesses and in public; that restaurants limit their occupancy to 50% and cut off alcohol sales at 11 p.m.; and limits on crowd sizes.
If there was more widespread cooperation from the public on things such as social distancing and mask-wearing, the state would likely quickly see the benefit, said Dr. Gerald Maloney, chief medical officer for hospital services, at Geisinger Health System.
“If we were all going to do what we all know we need to do, in two weeks, this is not under control, but it’s well under its way to being under control,” Maloney said.
Health officials are recommending that college students get tested for COVID-19 before they leave campus to return home for the Thanksgiving holiday, said Michael Huff, director of Contact Tracing and Testing for the Department of Health.
“What we’re recommending is that students be tested prior to going home – three to four days before they leave,” he said.
“Testing is just a snapshot in time. It does give you an opportunity that in the event you do have the disease, you can isolate.”
Maloney said he is concerned that the public is not going to voluntarily make the types of behavioral changes that are needed.
“I don’t have a whole lot of confidence that people are going to do things differently,” he said.
“What I hear in the community, is: ‘I’m tired of not going to a restaurant. I’m tired of not seeing my friends.’ ”
Levine and Maloney both noted that there is increasing evidence that much of the resurgence is being fueled by spread of coronavirus from small gatherings of people.
“That’s why our recommendations are broad. It’s going to come down to individual responsibility,” Levine said, adding that people are now being discouraged from holding or attending small gatherings if they include people outside their household.
Maloney said that too many people have become lax about social distancing with friends and acquaintances, and that’s contributing to the spike in cases.
“If you don’t live in my house, we’re microbiological strangers,” he said.
Department of Health data shows that the surge of cases is translating into increased pressure on hospitals in almost every corner of the state.
In four of the six regions used by the Department of Health to divide the state, the number of hospitalized increased by 60% or more in the first 10 days of November.
Since Nov. 1, the number of people hospitalized in the state’s North-central region has increased almost 75%, from 83 people hospitalized to 145. That was the biggest percentage change.
In the state’s Southeast region, the number of people increased from 496 on Nov. 1 to 833, a 68% increase.
In the state’s Southwest region, the number of people hospitalized increased from 268 to 418 – a 56% increase.
In the Northwest, the number of people hospitalized increased 60% – from 71 to 114.
In the Northeast, the number of people hospitalized increased 34% – from 155 to 208.
The South-central region has seen the smallest increase, 6% – the number of people hospitalized increased from 194 to 206.
There were 386 people hospitalized for COVID-19 in Philadelphia on Tuesday with 14% of the adult ICU beds available.
In Allegheny County, there were 214 people hospitalized with COVID-19 and 12% of the adult ICU beds available.
In Lehigh County, there were 102 people hospitalized with COVID-19 and 7% of the adult ICU beds in the county available. In Luzerne County, there were 62 people hospitalized with COVID-19 but less than 4% of the ICU beds in the county remained available. In rural Bradford County, there were 42 people hospitalized but less than 3% of the ICU beds in the county remained available.
Maloney said that due to the pressure on the health systems, state officials may need to ratchet up the mitigation orders.
In the meantime, the strain on the health system would be alleviated if more people recognized that wearing a face mask is an important public health measure.
“That’s how we control this. People need to understand that whether you wear a mask isn’t a sign of what political party you belong to,” he said.
“I don’t have the right to drive on the wrong side of the road. I don’t have the right to drive after I’ve been drinking. I may not care about myself, but those laws are in place to protect other people. I think that’s analogous.”
With the state grappling to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Tom Wolf on Thursday noted that Pennsylvania is also still trying to limit the impact of the opioid epidemic that’s raged across the state.
Wolf on Thursday signed his 12th renewal emergency declaration to allow for the continued response to the opioid epidemic.
“The work that is enabled by this declaration is vital to saving the lives of so many Pennsylvanians, providing education and treatment, and advancing initiatives across the state to continue to battle this epidemic,” Wolf said.
“This work is no less important during COVID; we can and are fighting both the pandemic and the epidemic.”