HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania officials have been considering a new statewide ban on indoor dining and the mandatory closures of gyms and casinos, their most stringent steps this fall to combat soaring coronavirus cases and hospitalizations, according to a Capitol source with knowledge of the plan but not authorized to speak publicly about it.
As speculation ran through Harrisburg and beyond Wednesday about whether and when Gov. Tom Wolf would set the new restrictions, the governor announced he had tested positive for the virus. Wolf said he was “feeling well” and had not experienced symptoms, but noted that he contracted it despite following all the prescribed precautions.
“As this virus rages, my positive test is a reminder that no one is immune from COVID,” Wolf said.
A spokesperson for the governor said no decisions on new mitigation measures had been finalized.
Wolf had said Monday he was considering more restrictions as hospitals become strained. Shutting down indoor dining, which has been permitted since late June, along with gyms and casinos, would bring the entire state in line with bans already in place in Philadelphia. But such closures, if implemented, would not go as far as the spring stay-at-home order and shutdown of schools and most businesses.
It was not clear when an announcement might be made, but Wolf was scheduled to speak Thursday with House Democrats, according to sources in Harrisburg.
Val Arkoosh, chair of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners, confirmed she had been in briefings with state officials about new proposed restrictions related to restaurants. She declined to elaborate, though she noted escalating concern as hospitalizations rise in the Philadelphia region and statewide.
“We are in a very, very serious situation right now,” Arkoosh said.
Pennsylvania’s seven-day average of new cases per day neared 10,000 on Wednesday, Delaware reported a record number of new cases in a single day at 925, and New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy warned that coronavirus-related hospitalizations there were on pace to exceed their spring peak by Jan. 13 — and said he could impose further restrictions if the trajectory does not change.
Wolf will continue to perform his duties as governor remotely, he said in a statement. He has primarily been at home or at the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency in recent weeks, said spokesperson Lyndsay Kensinger, and tested positive after members of his security team contracted the virus.
Health Secretary Rachel Levine, who was with Wolf at a Monday news briefing, has tested negative and is quarantining, along with several other members of the governor’s senior staff, Kensinger said.
Diverted patients, stressed staff
After warnings from Wolf this week that hospitals were becoming strained and could soon be overwhelmed, Montgomery County on Wednesday offered a window into the rising pressure on hospitals.
County data showed that 539 coronavirus patients were hospitalized there, an increase of 177 from last Wednesday. And new federal data analyzed by the New York Times suggested that Abington Hospital had reached capacity in its intensive care unit, and that hospitals in Norristown were at or near 95%.
Montgomery County’s hospitals are getting coronavirus patients from all surrounding counties, Arkoosh said. For the last six days, patients have been diverted from two to four of the county’s nine acute-care hospitals for at least some period during the day, Arkoosh said.
“The challenge for our hospitals is not physical space to put beds,” she said. “The challenge is having enough nursing personnel, nursing assistants, all the other staff that are needed and required to put people into those beds. So, it’s not the physical space, it’s having enough staff.”
And because of the severity of the nationwide surge, “virtually no personnel” are available to travel to the county to temporarily boost staffing, unlike in the spring, Arkoosh said.
And, she said, the county won’t have “any choice but to support some closures” if the surge in hospitals continues.
“There’s not going to be, I think, another easy way to start to get these numbers down if people don’t change their behavior,” Arkoosh said in response to a question referencing the school and business closures of the spring.
Last week brought new daily highs for the number of positive test results logged in the county, with 654 cases on Nov. 30, 557 cases the next day, and 540 cases the day after that. The county’s contact tracers are no longer able to call everyone who tests positive, the commissioner said.
“The vaccine is coming,” Arkoosh said. “But we do have to get from here to there. As the weather stays cold, it is going to be, I think, a bumpy and difficult few months.”
Other networks are also feeling the strain. Main Line Health, which has four acute-care hospitals in the suburbs, including Riddle Hospital in Media, where the intensive care unit was nearly full at the end of November, is diverting coronavirus patients among its hospitals to balance the surge, said interim chief medical officer John Stallkamp.
Riddle was 69% full, and its ICU, with 57 beds, was 93% full, according to the federal data. Main Line Health has also postponed many elective surgeries to help manage the surge, at a “significant cost to our bottom line,” Stallkamp said.
‘We can push these numbers down’
Across the state, Pennsylvania reported 220 deaths of coronavirus patients Wednesday, the most in one day since mid-May. The state logged 8,703 new cases, with 5,582 coronavirus patients hospitalized.
Philadelphia reported 971 new cases, one death, and 901 patients hospitalized.
The pandemic has led to a shortfall of at least $622 million in SEPTA’s operating budget through the end of fiscal year 2023, and the transit authority is planning for service reductions and layoffs, general manager Leslie Richards said in an update Wednesday.
SEPTA will close its trolley tunnel between midnight and 5 a.m. beginning Monday until further notice. Riders on Routes 10, 11, 13, 34, and 36 will need to transfer between the Market-Frankford Line or overnight Owl buses at 40th Street to continue their trips.
» READ MORE: Here are Philly’s current COVID-19 guidelines
New Jersey added 4,665 cases and 91 deaths, and the transmission rate is rising, which Murphy said reflected a wave of positive tests. On Wednesday, 3,533 patients were in hospitals, with 630 in ICUs, and 412 on ventilators.
The predictive model that projects a new peak for COVID-19 hospitalizations in mid-January — projecting more than 8,700 people could be hospitalized — assumes that there will be no changes in how residents are currently behaving.
“Under this scenario, we are in for weeks of significantly increasing cases,” the governor said.
A second model showed that hospitalizations would stay at a manageable level if some residents slightly increase their compliance with mask use and social distancing. Under both models, health officials said, ICU bed and ventilator use would not reach the levels seen in April.
“If we can overperform as we did in the spring and truly recommit to doing the right things, we can push these numbers down even further,” Murphy said.
Staff writers Rob Tornoe, Marie McCullough, Patricia Madej, and Laura McCrystal contributed to this article, along with Cynthia Fernandez of Spotlight PA.