The coronavirus surge has put tens of thousands of Americans — including nearly 3,900 Pennsylvanians — in hospitals two days before Thanksgiving, yet nearly two million travelers flew on Sunday and Monday and officials fear people will gather with family despite warnings that doing so will increase an already unprecedented number of infections.
Hospitalizations and deaths of coronavirus patients were rising, Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said Tuesday. He cited spikes in infections after Halloween, when some ignored public health leaders’ requests not to get together.
“We’ve given people plenty of warnings that they should have Thanksgiving meals with their household members only,” Farley said. “You don’t want to spread COVID to your elderly grandmother or to that cousin of yours who might have a medical condition.”
Whether traveling or not, the safest way to celebrate Thanksgiving is to dine only with the people you live with and to do video calls with people you don’t, officials have said.
With the state under a stay-at-home advisory the day after the commonwealth tightened restrictions Tuesday, Pennsylvania reported 6,669 newly confirmed cases and 81 deaths.
Statewide, 3,897 were hospitalized with the coronavirus. Two months ago, fewer than 500 patients were hospitalized.
The number of virus patients in Philadelphia hospitals increased from 542 on Thursday to 672 on Tuesday. While that caseload is still well below local hospitals’ capacity to treat residents with the disease, Farley said the trend line is alarming.
More than one in 10 Philadelphians whose test results were reported Tuesday were positive. The city reported 1,077 newly confirmed cases and seven deaths.
Seventeen city residents have been confirmed to have died of the virus last week, and 31 the previous week. In August and September, the city saw only about 10 deaths confirmed per week.
“We are still seeing very high case counts,” Farley said at a virtual news conference. “And we are seeing increases in the severe consequences of this infection.”
Mayor Jim Kenney said he had decided to skip his annual family Thanksgiving gathering, saying it was difficult to break the news to his 80-year-old mother but she texted him it was “a better idea that you don’t come.” “She said, ‘It’s only a dinner,’ ” Kenney said.
When coronavirus vaccines arrive in Philadelphia, frontline health-care workers including hospital nurses and testing center employees will be prioritized, Farley said. If the U.S. Food and Drug Administration quickly approves one of the two vaccines nearing the regulatory finish line, it’s possible Philadelphia could have its first round of vaccines as soon as mid-December, he said. The first batch of vaccines, however, will be limited.
President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team was briefed on Operation Warp Speed, the federal push to get a coronavirus vaccine out as soon as possible, on Monday night, shortly after the General Services Administration initiated Biden’s formal transition process, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said Tuesday.
“We are immediately getting them all the pre-prepared transition briefing materials,” Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said at a news conference regarding vaccine distribution. “We will ensure coordinated briefings with them, to ensure they are getting whatever information they feel they need that’s consistent with statute and past practice.”
Biden’s coronavirus task force began working after he won the election, but with the transition delayed for nearly three weeks, many public health leaders had worried about the vaccine distribution process, including Kenney and New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, who both warned Monday further delays could cost lives.
Appearing on MSNBC Live Tuesday, Murphy said he and health officials were continuing to work on plans for distributing coronavirus vaccines. The state could receive the first batches within weeks, he said, and officials are determining exactly which frontline workers would first receive them, and how those decisions would be made.
In the meantime, he again urged residents to keep holiday gatherings small this week, and acknowledged that many are suffering from not only pandemic fatigue but also stress, loneliness, and depression as a result of months of disruption and isolation.
“We are at a knife’s edge as a society,” he said. “We have to accept that there are no easy answers.”
New Jersey reported an additional 4,383 cases and 48 deaths. Ten new outbreaks in schools have led to 30 more cases of in-school transmission over the last week, Murphy said, characterizing the overall spread of infections in schools as “manageable.”
Families with children in schools operating remotely can apply for the state’s child-care tuition assistance program until Dec. 7.
Families with an annual gross income of up to $150,000 and children ages 5 to 13 can apply for the assistance online at childcarenj.gov, and if accepted, the tuition will be paid directly to the provider. Applicants must provide proof of residency, income, and a copy of the child’s remote learning schedule.
In Pennsylvania, only a quarter of people with COVID-19 reached by contact tracers last week cooperated and had their contacts found, and 96% of the contacts refused to quarantine, said Michael Huff, the commonwealth’s director of testing and contact tracing.
“Why? Because people don’t want to answer the phone,” Huff said. “Because people do not realize how important it is to give the information that we need to make certain that we can control disease.”
Testing has increased in the past two days, as cases surged and some people got tested before the Thanksgiving holiday, with 111,838 tests being processed in the past two days.
Cases have been frequently traced to both large and small gatherings, Huff said.
“In both of those settings, disease spread can occur very easily,” Huff said. “Certainly in small gatherings where we become a little bit too free with our movements and perhaps don’t social-distance as much. We’re less likely to wear masks. … [And] even more so in large groups where people are less likely to wear their masks because they think they’re social-distanced.”
Staff writers Allison Steele and Ellie Rushing contributed to this article.