On a bleak and chilly Thursday when COVID-19 numbers continued their alarming surges throughout the region and hospitals scrambled to accommodate a crush of patients, officials warned of a potentially “long, dark winter” with the specter of the coronavirus persisting well beyond the holidays.
All five of Delaware County’s hospitals were at capacity earlier this week and had to divert patients, and Camden County was experiencing a “tremendous spike” with infections at their highest point in the pandemic, according to officials in the two counties.
“Everything is going in the wrong direction,” said New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy. "Unless we all recommit to the commonsense measures that got us past the first horrendous months of this pandemic, we are in for a long, dark winter.”
Pennsylvania reported that it had received 5,488 new positive-test results and that for the first time in the pandemic it averaged more than 4,000 cases a day in the seven-day period that ended Wednesday. That’s 5½ times the level of two months ago.
New Jersey reported on Thursday that it had added 3,517 new cases — more than 12,500 since Monday. Its daily average for the seven-day period through Wednesday, 2,800, was eight times what it was at the same point in September.
“We’re getting into a neighborhood that is extremely concerning,” Murphy said during an interview on the Today show Thursday morning. Officials on both sides of the river said that as of now they weren’t considering all-out lockdowns since the spread of the virus evidently is tied to indoor gatherings.
But Murphy did impose new restrictions that went into effect Thursday, requiring restaurants and bars to stop indoor dining service at 10 p.m.
“Restaurants were morphing as the night went on — not in name, but in substance — into clubs. Into lounges. People were letting their guard down, particularly in and around bars,” Murphy said. “We had a lot of bartenders come back testing COVID-positive.”
Restrictions do come with a price, said Rachel Levine, Pennsylvania’s health secretary.
“Mitigation isn’t without consequences, social and economic,” she added, and officials will take those consequences into consideration if they implement further restrictions.
Restrictions have extracted a tremendous economic toll, hitting restaurants with a particular ferocity. On Thursday, Philadelphia City Council approved legislation that would allow expanded outdoor dining options for restaurants through next year. Indoor capacity is limited to 50%. Mayor Jim Kenney has been supportive of the expansion.
In one positive economic note, about 4,000 Philadelphia households will be getting some financial help from the federal government. Tenants who qualified for pandemic rental assistance but didn’t get it because their landlords wouldn’t cooperate will be eligible for one-time payments of up to $9,000.
The pandemic is showing no clear indication of waning in Philadelphia, even though the daily numbers have jumped around. Based on an Inquirer analysis of the most recent reliable data, Philadelphia was averaging 529 cases a day in the seven-day period that ended Saturday, 5½ times higher than the average of two months prior, similar to the state’s trend.
And not one of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties has shown a decline in infections during the last two weeks, according to an analysis of Department of Health data by The Inquirer.
Citing a post-Halloween bump in cases in Montgomery County, Val Arkoosh, chair of the commissioners and a physician, urged schools in the county to go virtual for two weeks after Thanksgiving. Her comments came after the county health board put off a vote on school closings.
In Delaware County, cases are close to where they were at the spring pandemic peak, with 214 reported on Wednesday. All hospitals in the county had to divert patients elsewhere this week, County Council President Brian Zidek said Thursday.
New Jersey Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said that several hospitals statewide are diverting patients, but she did not specify which facilities.
In Delaware County the hospital diversions have created a cascading effect, causing longer-than-normal wait times in emergency rooms. Simultaneously, emergency medical workers and staffers at the county’s emergency communications center are testing positive for the virus, deeply impacting how calls are handled.
Echoing comments made by officials elsewhere, Jeanne Casner, director of Chester County’s Health Department, which is providing services to Delaware County, said many of the infections can be traced to “small spreader” gatherings among close friends or family. Some, she added, came during election rallies and watch parties.
“As much as it’s a difficult time, particularly during holiday season when we all want to be together," Casner said, "we have to take that serious look at who we’re gathering with and what we’re doing during the gathering.”
Small private affairs, including weddings and family get-togethers, also likely contributed to “a tremendous spike” in Camden County, where case numbers are at their pandemic zenith, said Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli Jr.
Last week, Camden County reported over 1,000 new cases, the most during any seven-day period, and is on pace to surpass that this week, he said. An Inquirer analysis showed that the City of Camden had logged 581 positive tests in the last two weeks.
Cappelli, as others, urged everyone to have a cautious Thanksgiving, especially with people traveling among states.
“These are staggering and extremely concerning signs," Cappelli said. Evoking Murphy, he added, “We need to step up our game ... or we’ll be headed for a long, dark winter.”
Meanwhile advocates and prisoners are ringing alarm bells about outbreaks in state prisons across Pennsylvania.
“Twenty-one of the 23 state prisons have active cases,” the highest since the pandemic took hold, said Claire Shubik-Richards, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, a nonprofit that advocates for humane conditions.
So far, 17 incarcerated people have died — six of them since mid-October, at institutions around the state. By this week, the number of positive cases reported by the department stood at 442 prisoners and 244 staff.
Overall, 248,856 Pennsylvania residents have tested positive for the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic, and at least 9,194 have died. About two-thirds of those were residents of care facilities.
In New Jersey, 266,986 total positive cases have been reported, and at least 14,694 virus-related deaths.
“Folks, let these numbers sink in,” Murphy said. “COVID is not done with us, not by a long shot.”