Mass vaccination centers opened Friday in Philadelphia and New Jersey; the city said it might soon allow indoor dining to resume; and the president-elect indicated he would escalate the battle against the coronavirus. But there to temper hopes that this 10-month nightmare was hurtling toward a speedy conclusion were the latest case numbers.
For the first time since mid-December, Pennsylvania on Friday reported more than 10,000 newly confirmed positive cases — not coincidentally two weeks after Christmas and a week after New Year’s — and the number could grow in the coming days, said Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine.
“We think this is an increase from the holidays,” Levine said, adding that it could mark “the beginning of an increase.” People can become sick two to 14 days after exposure, and Levine said that a bump in hospitalizations could follow.
Pennsylvania on Friday also reported 215 additional deaths related to the virus; New Jersey added 5,791 positive tests with its Friday report, and 112 deaths.
Since the virus took hold and routed life as we knew it in March, it has been blamed for 17,697 deaths in the Garden State, and 17,394 in Pennsylvania. Over 700,000 Pennsylvanians have tested positive for the virus, and more than 500,000 have in New Jersey.
Philadelphia added 654 positive tests with its Friday update; multiple Philadelphia 76ers are expected to miss time due to their close contact with Seth Curry, who tested positive for COVID-19 Thursday.
But city officials evidently have been encouraged by a general downward trend. Mayor Jim Kenney said in a Twitter post that the city might allow indoor dining starting Jan. 16, “assuming we don’t have a spike in COVID-19 cases.”
The city on Nov. 20 ordered a ban on indoor dining amid a rapid increase in new cases, and Public Health Commissioner Thomas Farley has said that the restrictions helped slow the spread.
Meanwhile, in Center City on Friday a mass inoculation venue opened at the Pennsylvania Convention Center — along with sites on the Rowan College of South Jersey campus, in Gloucester County, and in North Jersey — on the same day that President-elect Joe Biden announced that he would speed up the release of all vaccines when he takes office Jan. 20.
Under President Donald Trump’s administration, the government was holding back supplies of vaccines to make sure that people would receive their first shot before getting the required second one three weeks later. Biden’s office said he would end that practice.
“We’re all on the same page of wanting to get these vaccines out as quickly as possible,” said Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf.
Health secretary Levine said, “We do not agree with what’s being done in the United Kingdom where they’re doing a one-dose regime,” adding, “we’ll catch up on a second dose when it’s possible.”
The state’s updated vaccine plan gives priority to frontline health workers and nursing home residents and staff, who are currently being vaccinated, and people 75 and older and frontline essential workers. Next in line would be people 65 and older, adults with high-risk conditions, and a broader group of essential workers will be able to get their shots in group 1c, officials said.
Perhaps in late spring but “certainly by the summer,” Levine said that anyone 16 and older could be vaccinated.
City officials and the leaders of the organization Philly Fighting COVID on Friday said they planned to inoculate 2,400 home health-care workers in a two-day period at the Convention Center.
The city worked with home health-care agencies to sign up workers for the vaccine this week. An additional 1,000 are on a waiting list, said Karol Osipowicz, the chief science officer at Philly Fighting COVID, which has been distributing free COVID-19 tests during the pandemic in partnership with the Health Department.
Eventually, as the city works its way through distribution tiers, the clinic will be open to the general public, he said. The clinic has the capacity to inoculate between 100 and 450 people per hour, but for now, supplies are limited.
“It’s designed to be scalable and replicable across the city — we’ve built a way for everyone who wants to get it to get it,” Osipowicz said.
Philly Fighting COVID says all Philadelphians who want the vaccine can sign up on its website to “pre-commit” to getting a vaccine. Those who sign up won’t be given an appointment immediately, but will receive updates on the vaccine availability.
New Jersey’s first vaccine megasite opened Friday at a 30,000-square-foot facility at the Rockaway Townsquare Mall in Morris County. It eventually could serve up to 2,400 people a day and operate seven days a week, but that will depend on dosage availability.
“We’ll begin to slowly but surely widen the circle of folks who are eligible, but we continue to have a big supply-demand imbalance, said Gov. Phil Murphy. “We need more from the feds.”
Not everyone is enthused about the vaccine, and Pennsylvania’s Levine said it has been encountering some resistance. “We are seeing some vaccine hesitancy in hospitals,” she said. “We are seeing vaccine hesitancy in nursing homes.”
Pennsylvania officials have spoken with Biden’s transition team about launching a more robust national effort to communicate facts about the vaccine’s safety and efficacy, she said, adding that at least 235,000 Pennsylvanians have been vaccinated so far.
Levine has taken some heat for recommending this week that elementary schools return to in-person learning, arguing that the benefits of having children with disabilities and in English-learning programs in school outweighs the risk of virus spread. Providing schools follow the state’s required mitigation measures, grade-school pupils wouldn’t spread the virus readily.
Both the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, and the state’s American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest, weighed in with strong exceptions.
“Currently, there is not enough data to ensure that this is safe,” Arthur G. Steinberg, Pennsylvania’s AFT chief, said Friday.
One indication that the return journey to normality has slowed came with unemployment figures. U.S. employers shed jobs last month for the first time since April, cutting 140,000 positions. The jobless rate stayed at 6.7%, the first time it hasn’t fallen since April. In all, nearly 10 million fewer Americans were employed, compared with the onset of the pandemic.
But in Pennsylvania at least, the unemployment checks will be a little healthier. Thanks to federal stimulus money, more than 125,000 claimants will be getting an additional $300, as soon as Tuesday.