With a vaccine on the horizon but the coronavirus spreading faster than ever, Pennsylvania reported more than 7,000 new cases Thursday, breaking its record for the third straight day. The state also reported more than 100 COVID-19-related deaths as officials across the region implored people to flatten the curve.
In just two weeks, Pennsylvania has gone from an average of 2,500 new cases a day to 5,700 cases a day, according to an Inquirer analysis of state data.
Alarms sounded around the region. Hospitals are filling in Camden County as cases rise in South Jersey, officials said. Delaware County hospitals are diverting patients, and county leaders asked the state to enact stricter mitigation measures.
And Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said that he hoped restrictions would help slow the spread but that he expects the current wave of the coronavirus pandemic to continue rising through December and peak in January. He asked people to follow public health guidance, including the city restrictions going into effect Friday.
“These restrictions are temporary, just six weeks, but death is permanent,” Farley said.
Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told Americans not to travel for Thanksgiving and advised that the safest approach “is to celebrate at home with the people you live with.”
With more than a quarter of a million people in the United States now dead, cases were continuing to climb, with the worst surges still concentrated in the middle of the country.
Though death levels remain lower than during the first wave, Thursday’s death count of 1,869 was the highest the nation has seen since May 7, according to the COVID Tracking Project.
An exponential rise
Pennsylvania reported 7,126 new cases of the coronavirus Thursday, the highest number ever. It reported 116 deaths.
The case numbers have skyrocketed: The state reported more than 3,000 new cases in one day for the first time on Nov. 6, more than 4,000 the next day, more than 5,000 five days later on Nov. 12, and more than 6,000 on Wednesday before topping 7,000 Thursday.
New Jersey on Thursday reported 4,320 new cases and 38 deaths. The Garden State has averaged 3,858 additional cases per day over the last seven days, and 2,471 people were hospitalized there as of Thursday.
With at least two vaccines close to federal review, a vaccine could arrive “within the next month” if the approval processes remain on track, Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine said.
The vaccine will not be immediately available to everyone, with limited quantities going first to the most vulnerable populations, Levine said, announcing the release of the state’s interim vaccination plan. She warned people will have to continue wearing masks and social distancing for some time even as the vaccine is being distributed.
It is not clear how quickly the vaccine will become more widely available; Philadelphia Deputy Health Commissioner Carolyn Johnson said at a Thursday City Council hearing she expected a steady flow of vaccine by summer.
Though the trials showing Pfizer’s and Moderna’s vaccines to be highly effective are “a very, very exciting and positive development,” Levine said a vaccine will not bring an immediate end to the pandemic.
She said she anticipated the public will need to wear masks well into next year and maybe through all of 2021. And in Philadelphia, Farley warned that the city’s new restrictions may be extended beyond Jan. 1.
The city reported 765 confirmed cases of the virus Thursday and an average of 849 cases per day last week, which far exceeds any other week’s daily average since March.
Philadelphia also had an 11.7% test positivity rate, the highest since May. And Farley said the city had 71 new cases in nursing homes last week, compared with an average of about 10 to 15 cases per week throughout August and September.
“This is possibly the worst period of the entire epidemic,” he said.
‘Now is the moment’
State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (D., Phila.) proposed a bill that would establish an enforced mask requirement in all public spaces, and Delaware County officials asked the state to implement a trio of restrictions, including a limit on indoor gatherings of 10 people.
Since Nov. 9, the county’s hospitals have had to divert coronavirus patients because they did not have enough space or health-care workers to treat them, and emergency responders and health-care staffs are strained, the county said.
“The county has now exceeded the highest number of COVID-19 outbreaks since the height of the pandemic,” the county said in a news release. It can’t enact its own mitigation measures stricter than the state’s because it does not have a health department.
As of Wednesday, the state requires mask-wearing in any setting, indoor or outdoor, where someone is near people they don’t live with.
A hospital executive in South Jersey predicted surpassing the number of patients hospitalized during the first wave “by far” in December.
Over the last two weeks, Freeholder Louis Cappelli Jr. said Camden County has reported more than 3,000 new cases, by far the most in any 14-day span during the pandemic. As of last Friday, 205 coronavirus patients were hospitalized across Virtua Health’s five South Jersey hospitals, up from 40 in October, said Virtua executive vice president Reginald Blaber.
“We don’t know when the peak will end, but absent a vaccine, we’re not going to see relief until the spring,” Blaber said at a Camden County news briefing. “We all have extreme fatigue over wearing masks and social distancing, but honestly, now is the moment where we have to come together and have to protect our loved ones, friends, and coworkers.”
Small is safest
The last-minute preholiday guidance from the CDC echoed pleas from Pennsylvania and New Jersey officials, who have recommended residents have Thanksgiving only with their own household.
Indoor gatherings have driven much of the recent spread of the virus. Philadelphia has banned all indoor gatherings and prohibited eating at outdoor gatherings. Pennsylvania now requires mask-wearing indoors unless only with members of a single household.
As of Friday, Pennsylvania also requires anyone entering the state to have a negative coronavirus test within the previous 72 hours.
The CDC recommended anyone considering traveling to go through a checklist of questions first, and said people who ignore advice not to attend gatherings should bring their own food, dishes and utensils, and wear a mask.
Having a small Thanksgiving this year is “a down payment, God willing with a vaccine, for a back-to-normal holiday season next year,” New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said Thursday. .
Staff writers Erin McCarthy and Jason Laughlin contributed to this article.