Philadelphia could receive its first doses of the long-awaited coronavirus vaccine as soon as next week and begin inoculating health-care workers on the front line, officials said Tuesday, while signs were evident the seemingly relentless fall surge was not subsiding.
The city, like the state and the country, will be able to vaccinate only a fraction of its population at first. As the country awaits the anticipated federal approval this week of the Pfizer vaccine, Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley told residents that, for now, they remain safer at home.
Philadelphia was seeing the predicted post-Thanksgiving spike in new infections as well as rising case numbers in nursing homes: 50 long-term care residents with the virus have been moved to the city’s COVID-19 relief unit to prevent further spread.
Statewide, Pennsylvania reported more than 10,000 new cases of the virus for the fourth time in six days. And the day after Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf gave a dire warning that the state’s hospitals could be overwhelmed by the impact of the virus, Delaware Gov. John Carney reported that more coronavirus patients are now hospitalized in his state than at any other time during the pandemic.
Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware officials have said they anticipate receiving vaccine doses by mid- to late December. Philadelphia, with a population of 1.5 million, will receive just tens of thousands of doses at first. Most people, including those with high-risk conditions, should not expect to be vaccinated this year, Farley said.
The vaccine, which requires two doses over several weeks, will go first to workers at hospitals and nursing homes; the city’s priority is inoculating those with regular exposure to coronavirus patients. Next in line, Farley said, will likely be workers and residents in congregate settings such as jails.
Public health leaders cautioned that the vaccines will not bring immediate relief from the pandemic.
“This epidemic has touched us all,” Farley said. “Most people in Philadelphia are still susceptible to this virus.”
‘This is real’
Pennsylvania reported 10,170 new cases and 169 deaths Tuesday, pushing its seven-day average to 9,925 new cases a day, according to an Inquirer analysis. During the spring peak, that never topped 1,700 new cases per day.
On Tuesday, 5,421 virus patients were hospitalized statewide, and about a quarter of them were in intensive care units. On Nov. 3, 1,352 were hospitalized, with 301 in intensive care.
Wolf had said Monday state officials were expecting “an upsurge” in new cases but were still surprised by the pace of the increase, and were considering additional mitigation measures.
The state announced it will open a testing site at Delaware County Community College from Thursday to Monday as part of an initiative to bring temporary testing sites to counties without health departments.
New Jersey reported 5,820 cases and 90 deaths Tuesday. The state was averaging more than 5,100 new cases a day over the last seven days, and hospitalizations had increased 29% from two weeks ago, to 3,481.
The flood of new cases prompted Camden County officials to set up three free testing sites this week.
In Delaware, 338 coronavirus patients hospitalized on Tuesday just topped the spring record of 337. Carney said the state’s hospital capacity is between 400 and 500 patients.
Delaware is averaging over 730 new cases a day, an 81% jump compared with just two weeks ago, when the state was averaging just over 400 new cases a day. Carney warned that unless the spike in new cases eases, hospitals will continue to fill.
“These hospitalization numbers are as real as real can get,” he said Tuesday. “They’re present in the hospitals. It’s not a hoax. This is real, and it’s serious.”
Mounting cases in nursing homes
After remaining relatively stable during the start of the fall surge, nursing homes and long-term care facilities — where the virus caused devastation during the spring — are seeing significant spikes, according to state and local data.
In Philadelphia, about 160 nursing home residents have tested positive in each of the last two weeks, Farley said. It’s nowhere near the spring peak, he said, “but it’s a big increase from the 10 to 15 cases per week we saw in the summertime.”
Philadelphia Nursing Home reported 132 new cases at this time last month and was up to 200 cases on Tuesday, an increase of 68. Two others in the region — Phoebe Richland Health Care Center and Delaware Valley Veterans’ Home — had doubled their totals from four weeks ago, according to state data.
The city’s move of 50 infected nursing home residents to the city’s relief unit, a facility housing infected people who have nowhere to safely isolate, was one attempt to stop the spread of the virus in the facilities.
Statewide, there are nearly 48,000 cases in nursing and personal care homes, a nearly 45% increase from 33,608 cases about a month ago.
“Our health care heroes are doing everything they can to prevent it from spreading further, but this level of COVID nationwide puts serious strain on our workforce, supplies, and testing capacity,” Mark Parkinson, president of the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living, said in a statement last week detailing outbreaks nationwide.
In South Jersey, new COVID-19 cases had been confirmed in 26 long-term care facilities in Camden County, 15 in Burlington County, and 16 in Gloucester County as of Tuesday, according to the state. In total, 3,455 residents had known cases this week.
Last week, the state implemented a temporary regimen to test staffers in such homes every other day for the two weeks following Thanksgiving. Murphy has called keeping the virus out of long-term facilities “a paramount concern.”
City sees Thanksgiving spike
There were 886 coronavirus patients in Philadelphia hospitals as of Tuesday morning. Some outbreaks have strained resources: Hospitals in Northeast Philadelphia, which is seeing the worst spike in the city, are moving patients to facilities elsewhere in the region, Farley said.
However, Farley said the city is not yet alarmed about running out of hospital beds. In the spring surge, Philadelphia had more than 1,000 in hospitals.
Mayor Jim Kenney said he was quarantining for the second time this fall after being exposed to someone with the coronavirus. He said he did not have any symptoms and would be tested soon.
Philadelphia reported 1,408 newly confirmed cases Tuesday. During the week that ended Saturday, the city had reported about 910 new cases per day, with a positive test rate of 12.7% — up from 820 cases per day the previous week, when there was a 10.6% positivity rate.
Nearly two weeks after Thanksgiving, Farley said holiday festivities were probably to blame for the increase, particularly because daily case numbers had begun to slow before late last week.
He said the city had heard in case interviews from people who gathered with others for Thanksgiving. He cited one Philadelphia woman he did not identify who attended her family’s dinner despite having symptoms that started the day before Thanksgiving. She tested positive shortly after Thanksgiving, and since then, at least seven of the 10 people at her family gathering have tested positive as well.
“We have more holidays coming up,” Farley said. “We can’t afford to have more case spikes like this.”
Staff writers Jason Laughlin, Allison Steele, Erin McCarthy, and Frank Kummer contributed to this article, along with graphics editor John Duchneskie.