The coronavirus pandemic took a significant turn in the Philadelphia region on Wednesday, as Montgomery County became the first in the state to announce it would stop tracing how someone caught the virus, acknowledging that it can be passed along just through “normal activity.”
In several cases, officials have been unable to identify the source of the coronavirus, said Val Arkoosh, chair of the county Board of Commissioners. The 42 cases in Montgomery County, including a hospitalized 1-year-old, are by far the most in the state.
“We are assuming that there is community spread,' Arkoosh said, “meaning that you might get it just from normal activity.”
On a day when the region — and most of the nation — remained in a state of shutdown that evoked a prolonged and nightmarish snow day, Pennsylvania reported its first coronavirus-related death, identified only as “an adult from Northampton County," and Gov. Tom Wolf predicted it would be the first of “what will become many.” Five deaths have occurred in New Jersey.
The number of cases in both states has climbed well into the hundreds, and in all likelihood only a small percentage of those with symptoms have been tested. Cases are “increasing at an exponential pace,” Wolf said in a live-streamed address Wednesday evening.
“We are clearly in a rapid growth phase of this epidemic,” Philadelphia Public Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said, “and I expect that to continue.”
Confirmed cases in the city doubled Wednesday to 34, he said, 19 of whom are under age 40. Five have been hospitalized.
Farley said officials are developing a testing site near the stadiums in South Philadelphia that they hope to open soon.
Montgomery County is planning to set up a drive-through site on Temple University’s Ambler Campus, Arkoosh said. The state has been in talks to open two federally supported public testing sites in the region, said Randy Padfield, director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency.
It was not disclosed where they would be located, and it was unclear whether people would need a doctor’s note to be tested.
And in New Jersey, Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said that a mobile testing site run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency will be open in Bergen County by Friday, and another should be ready next week in Monmouth County.
Murphy said that the Trump administration is considering his request to enlist the Army Corps of Engineers to help build temporary hospital facilities in the state, and that he would meet with Corps officials Thursday.
Persichilli said New Jersey will add about 500 beds in the next three to four weeks, and officials are expecting to reopen the former Inspira Medical Center in Woodbury, which would add 300 more.
Meanwhile, hospitals were confronting blood shortages. The American Red Cross and the medical facilities it supplies are experiencing a massive blood shortage as an “unprecedented” number of blood drives have been canceled regionally and across the country with workplaces and schools have closed.
More than 200 blood drives have been canceled over the last eight days in Southeastern Pennsylvania, South Jersey and Delaware, resulting in a shortfall of more than 7,000 blood donations, said Alana Mauger, communications manager for Red Cross Blood Services for the Penn-Jersey region.
Local hospitals are working to conserve the blood supplies they have, and officials are urging healthy residents to donate blood as soon as possible.
As preparations for its spread ramped up, the pandemic’s disruptive force on the business of life intensified Wednesday, and it was unclear when normality might make a comeback.
After a 30-year-old visitor from New York City tested positive at a local health care facility, the Cape May County Department of Health asked out-of-state residents to please stay away.
Schools remain closed, and in Philadelphia, the School District has issued an edict against offering pupils remote instruction, citing equity issues.
“We may not offer remote instruction to some students unless we can serve all children,” read a memo sent Tuesday night by district officials and obtained by The Inquirer.
“As we all know, some of our students have special instructional needs, some lack access to a computer, and some will have responsibility for taking care of younger siblings or older relatives while their parents are at work."
It was not clear how many students would be affected.
Coronavirus fears evidently have stirred ugliness in Chinatown. John Chin, executive director of the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp., said Wednesday that he had requested additional police presence in the neighborhood after increasing incidents of racial intimidation and harassment. The virus was first found in China.
“I have spoken to some of the business owners, and they are scared,” Chin said. “I can tell you that the businesses are worried. They are afraid for their physical safety.”
Citing “this false idea that Chinese people should be blamed for this coronavirus,” he said that “residents have described being shouted at in the street and harassed on city buses."
On the day after Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw notified commanders that police would delay arrests for nonviolent crimes, including drug offenses and theft, she said Wednesday that police would not “turn a blind eye” to crime.
She said that even if alleged offenders aren’t jailed, they will be detained at the scene to be fingerprinted and identified, and police will submit paperwork for charges to be filed later. “No one will escape accountability for the crimes that they commit,” she said.
Law enforcement agencies elsewhere in the region are confronting issues such as how to deal with minor crimes and how to patrol neighborhoods without coming into close contact with residents.
New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal on Monday issued guidelines to law-enforcement agencies across the state, telling them to consider delaying the filing of charges in cases not imminently impacting public safety.
Camden County Police Chief Joseph Wysocki posted on Facebook that the police presence would strengthen around Camden grocery stores.
Officers also will continue to patrol neighborhoods, but new safety measures might require residents to meet police outside.
In Bucks County, District Attorney Matthew Weintraub said: “We’re all human beings first, we’re all in this together, but we need to maintain order. And we need to give the public confidence that order is being maintained, especially in a time of crisis like this.
“The bottom line is to try to use common sense to stay safe and let people know that the police are still answering calls.”