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Pa. officials look for supplies and space amid coronavirus ‘war,’ New Jersey pronounced major disaster area

New Jersey was approaching 7,000 cases of the coronavirus, with 81 people dead, and Pennsylvania neared 1,700 cases on Thursday. The number of new cases in Pennsylvania doubled over Wednesday, with 560 positive tests reported.

The entrance to the Atlantic City Convention Center from the NJ Transit rail station photographed Mar. 26, 2020. It is one the regional locations in New Jersey that will serve as a field hospital site for coronavirus patients run by FEMA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the state Department of Health and the State Police.
The entrance to the Atlantic City Convention Center from the NJ Transit rail station photographed Mar. 26, 2020. It is one the regional locations in New Jersey that will serve as a field hospital site for coronavirus patients run by FEMA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the state Department of Health and the State Police.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

As preparations — and a race against time — continued for the anticipated strain of the coronavirus on hospitals, New Jersey was declared a major disaster area by President Donald Trump, and officials across Pennsylvania scrambled Thursday to find hospital space and much-needed supplies to care for the growing number of ill people.

The New Jersey health commissioner warned that the state was nearing the patient surge officials have been trying to combat, and ordered three major hospitals across the state to help mount field hospitals in the coming weeks. The state put in another order for supplies from the federal government, seeking 4.5 million N95 masks and 2,500 ventilators.

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania officials said they were “scouring the state and the country” to find any medical supplies available for purchase, and Gov. Tom Wolf said the state needs more beds and ventilators “as soon as possible.”

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New Jersey was approaching 7,000 cases of the coronavirus, with 81 people dead, and Pennsylvania neared 1,700 cases on Thursday. The number of new cases reported in Pennsylvania Thursday — 560 positive tests — was double the number reported Wednesday.

Delaware reported its first coronavirus death Thursday, a 66-year-old man from Sussex County who was hospitalized out of state. The state tallied 130 cases, most in New Castle County.

Eleven of the 16 people who have died from the coronavirus in Pennsylvania were over age 65, Health Secretary Rachel Levine said. Montgomery County reported its third death and 313 cases. Bucks County had 107 cases, Chester County had 84, and Delaware County had 156.

Of all patients in the commonwealth, 39% are between the ages of 25 and 49; Levine warned younger adults “not to be complacent” about the virus.

Montgomery County Commissioners Chair Val Arkoosh, a physician, reminded residents in their 20s and 30s to stay home.

“If you expose others, your parents, a coworker, or someone who’s immunocompromised, the chances of them being hospitalized are much higher,” Arkoosh said. “This is why we have to pull together as a community and work together to stay home. That’s how we’ll beat this disease.”

By Thursday evening, the United States had confirmed more coronavirus cases than any other country, surpassing China and Italy with more than 82,400 virus patients. The death toll of the virus in the U.S. topped 1,000 Thursday as Americans awaited a stimulus package set for a House vote Friday.

As deaths and cases mounted in disaster-struck New York, health officials in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey had begun preparing guidelines for doctors to decide which coronavirus patients get life-saving care in the event of supply shortages.

In New Jersey, where the state has 1,900 ventilators and has requested 2,500 more from the federal government, the disaster declaration handed down by Trump should allow the state to get additional money and resources to fight the disease.

“We will now have access to greater, essential federal support to help our residents through this emergency,” said Gov. Phil Murphy at a Thursday briefing.

Ten other states confronting the worst coronavirus numbers — including New York, California and Washington — have also been declared major disaster areas.

In Pennsylvania, the state has handed out more than 678,000 N95 masks to hospitals, health-care systems, and emergency responders, along with thousands of gloves, gowns, and goggles, Levine said, providing the first exact numbers from the commonwealth. The numbers did not include supplies hospitals and other jurisdictions already had or supplies from the federal government.

“We know our hospitals will face capacity issues,” Wolf said Thursday. “We need more beds, we need more ventilators, we need more personal protective equipment, and so much more — and we need it as soon as possible, because the virus is here.”

Shortages are already so pronounced that as alcohol distilleries have shifted to making hand sanitizer, the Lehigh Valley plant that manufactures the uniforms worn by Major League Baseball players was halting the production of baseball jerseys in order to start making a million masks and gowns to donate to Pennsylvania hospitals, Fanatics owner Michael Rubin said Thursday.

The rush to find supplies is accompanied by a race to secure space to put patients, quarantined people, and the bodies of the dead. Officials are closely watching New York City, which has become the epicenter of the pandemic in the U.S.

As Philadelphia’s confirmed cases continued to grow, reaching 475, including newly confirmed cases among city police officers, firefighters, and SEPTA workers, city officials were in “various stages of negotiations” to lease as many as six hotels to use for quarantine or isolation space, Managing Director Brian Abernathy said.

The hotels, which are desirable because they already have private beds, bathrooms, and showers, would be used for people who are homeless or cannot quarantine at home because they have an immunocompromised family member, are experiencing domestic violence, or have other situations.

Philadelphia is also working on plans for added hospital capacity in case of a surge in cases requiring hospitalization. The city also may set up a space for hospitals to send patients who “may be on the mend and can free up beds.”

And the Glen Mills Schools campus, which closed after an Inquirer investigation exposed a pattern of abuse at the reform academy, looked set to become a federal medical center that would house regional overflow patients in a potential surge. The Army Corps of Engineers and Department of Homeland Security visited the Delaware County site earlier this week and gave a final security approval late Thursday.

“Based on the observed progression of COVID-19, we expect that hospitals in our region will require significant assistance from a federal medical station,” a group of Pennsylvania members of Congress wrote to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

But on Thursday, Philadelphia ended negotiations over the potential use of the former Hahnemann University Hospital facility after the owner of the site wanted about $1 million a month for the empty hospital building and did not agree to the city’s counteroffers. The shuttered hospital has no beds and “would require extensive work” to be used again, Mayor Jim Kenney said, adding, “We are done and we are moving on.”

Sam Singer, a spokesperson for hospital owner Joel Freedman, said he understands the city’s stance but is ready to re-engage if the situation changes.

Asked about plans to set up a morgue for coronavirus victims, Abernathy said, “We certainly are aware that New York City has brought in a number of refrigerator trucks in order to prepare” for holding bodies, “and we are taking similar precautions.”

Kenney, meanwhile, encouraged Philadelphians to comply with his stay-at-home order to avoid a situation similar to New York’s.

“Many of you have seen the terrifying videos of overloaded hospitals in Spain and in Italy. Now New York is facing that reality,” he said. “We don’t want Philadelphia to be the next major city in that situation.”

As 3.28 million initial weekly claims for unemployment insurance were filed last week, shattering the previous record of 695,000 in a week in 1982, hundreds of thousands in Pennsylvania and New Jersey — where all nonessential businesses are under orders not to operate — were among those filing.

Wolf projected that the state will have about 800,000 new unemployment insurance claims from March 15 through Friday, which would represent about 10% of all the new claims in the country.

“Pennsylvania is really the epicenter of the unemployment insurance claims, and we’re doing everything we can to make sure that we turn these things around as quickly as possible,” Wolf said.

The Greater Philadelphia YMCA laid off most of its workforce Thursday, cutting 4,000 jobs in what appears to be the largest mass layoff yet in Pennsylvania amid the coronavirus pandemic. And low-wage worker groups called on Philadelphia to create an emergency fund of $5 million to $10 million for the tens of thousands of workers who are likely to be left out of state and federal relief efforts and an expansion of the city’s paid sick leave law because they are undocumented or working in the cash economy.

To aid in the state’s economic recovery, New Jersey’s Economic Development Authority on Thursday unveiled $75 million worth of programs aimed at helping nearly 5,000 small businesses weather the crisis that has forced non-essential businesses to close. As of Thursday, 155,000 people in New Jersey had filed for unemployment, a 16-fold increase from the week before, Murphy said.

Meanwhile, Philadelphia judges agreed to begin reviewing motions with the aim of reducing the jail population during the pandemic, and on Thursday, Delaware County sharply reduced the inmate population at its jail, in part by expediting plea bargains for nearly 100 inmates, the county said.

With 94% of riders no longer using Regional Rail, SEPTA said it would begin an “essential service” schedule Sunday and begged customers, “If you don’t have to ride, please don’t.”

And Wolf said he is considering suspending bus service by companies such as Megabus between New York and Philadelphia. Earlier this week, federal officials told anyone who has recently been in New York City to quarantine for two weeks.

Wolf emphasized that Pennsylvanians need to continue to stay home for the state to have hope of stopping the rapid growth in virus cases.

“We’re not fighting a battle here," Wolf said, “we’re fighting a war.”

Contributing to this article were staff writers Rob Tornoe, Vinny Vella, Mike Newall, Chris Palmer, Jonathan Tamari, Patricia Madej, Harold Brubaker, Juliana Feliciano Reyes, Matt Breen, Anna Orso, and Jason Laughlin, as well as Sarah Anne Hughes of Spotlight PA.