As the number of nursing home residents dying of the coronavirus mounts, officials in Bucks and Delaware Counties sought on Monday to speed their ability to lift shutdown restrictions by asking the state to consider their infection rates without including deaths in long-term care facilities.
Health Secretary Rachel Levine said such cases cannot be severed from the rest in society — noting that staff members go back and forth between those facilities and the broader community — and would not be considered separately.
"What we have certainly learned in this global pandemic of COVID-19 is that we are all interconnected,” Levine said. “One section of our community … impacts the general community.”
Philadelphia reported no deaths for the first day since March 24, though the city health commissioner cautioned that more from the past 24 hours could come in later. The number of cases in Camden City passed 1,000, and Camden County reported 48 previously uncounted deaths in April.
Officials in Pennsylvania and New Jersey urged people not to shirk their duty to wear face coverings in public — “Just put on the damn mask,” said Mayor Jim Kenney, specifically addressing people 30 and younger, an age group he noticed over the weekend as especially noncompliant.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy ended speculation on the status of the rest of the school year, announcing schools will remain closed for the remainder, as they are in Pennsylvania.
But reopened state parks — which were popular over the weekend — will remain open, Murphy said Monday, because there were “very few incidents of knucklehead behavior.”
New Jersey reported 1,621 new positive tests, bringing the state’s confirmed caseload to 128,269, and 45 deaths, increasing the state’s toll to 7,910. Health officials said the numbers were underreported because of weekend network outages.
Still, hospital admissions were dropping in the north and central parts of the state and staying steady in the south as the infection rate flattens, Murphy said.
Pennsylvania surpassed 50,000 reported cases of the coronavirus on Monday, when 825 new cases were confirmed, and 2,458 Pennsylvanians have died. Officials couldn’t say when they might announce the next batch of counties approved to move to the first phase of reopening.
“The health-care system, though challenged in Philadelphia, has stood up very well,” Levine said. But “if we release the mitigation efforts too soon in areas that are very affected by COVID-19, areas that still have significant community transmission, we would just go right back into that exponential rise, and it could even be higher than the rise we saw before.”
Deaths of people living in nursing homes make up about three-quarters of all coronavirus deaths in both Bucks and Delaware Counties, and an even higher proportion in Chester and Montgomery Counties, according to Monday’s state data.
Asked about the neighboring counties’ requests to count nursing home cases separately, Montgomery County Commissioners Chair Val Arkoosh said that while she believed those cases should be included in totals, it could be “quite appropriate” to track them separately.
“We may see differing rates of both infection and decline when comparing individuals in the community to individuals who live in a congregate-care facility,” said Arkoosh, a physician with a background in public health. She added, “These are our grandparents, our parents, our brothers and sisters. … These are human beings … and they should be treated with respect and care.”
A group of eight Republican state lawmakers from Bucks County, writing to Wolf in support of the county commissioners’ request that the governor reconsider the metric for reopening, said Bucks had “very little community spread."
Delaware County still has “too much spread” of the virus to reopen, and officials were not calling on Wolf to reopen until it was safe, said County Council Member Kevin Madden. But they wanted Wolf to provide the area with more testing and a separate assessment of new cases in its long-term care population in addition to reconsidering the metric.
“The governor has set targets for counties to open. We are calling on the state to give us the necessary resources to meet these targets as soon as we can,” said Madden, a Democrat.
State health officials are planning to expand testing in Philadelphia’s collar counties, Levine said, but she did not say when or by how much.
City officials made testing more widely available in Philadelphia on Monday, to include anyone, regardless of age, who has a new cough, shortness of breath, or two of the following symptoms: fever, chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache, and loss of taste or smell.
“Until we have the ability to test everyone who may have been exposed to COVID-19 coronavirus, we won’t know how safe it will be to reopen Philadelphia. And contact tracing will require that we identify as many people with the infection as possible. Expanding our recommendations on who should be tested is the first step in that process,” said Health Commissioner Thomas Farley.
Due to shortages of testing materials, the city had previously recommended that only people with symptoms in at-risk groups should be tested.
“We've been through some tough times in this epidemic, but over the weekend, the situation here in Philadelphia is starting to look better,” Farley said at a virtual news conference Monday, reporting 186 new cases with some delayed test results still expected to come in.
“This is now the third day in a row where the daily case count is below 400, and that's despite the fact that we are increasing the number of tests that we are doing, so that clearly is good news,” he said.
As the state monitors areas that have yet to move to the first reopening phase, Levine said officials are tracking case data, lab capacity, and contact tracing ability. They are also looking toward the fall, when some experts predict a second wave of coronavirus cases will occur. She said Pennsylvania hopes to have enough rapid testing — and perhaps even antibody testing — to ensure any second wave would be less devastating than the first.
In New Jersey, Murphy enacted a set of measures Monday to shore up state finances. He rescinded an order he signed last year that called on the state treasurer to build a surplus and vetoed several bills that would have directed, among other things, $20 million in wage support to those unemployed due to the pandemic, $10 million for coronavirus sanitation efforts, and $15 million to local food banks.
“I have no other choice,” Murphy said. “We need the federal government to step forward with significant investment in our states, both red and blue, to prevent our recovery from being held back, because we cannot fund it.”
Staff writers Allison Steele, Sean Collins Walsh, and Jeremy Roebuck contributed to this article.