Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

As the coronavirus spreads, Pa. and New Jersey race to add hospital beds, testing

Pennsylvania and New Jersey were preparing for a possible surge in new coronavirus cases as nonessential business shutdowns and social distancing impacted the region's people and economies.

A medical worker prepares to collect samples from individuals who signed up for "drive-through testing" for the coronavirus at a Penn Medicine site in West Philadelphia on Tuesday. Penn, Jefferson and other area hospital systems have set up drive-through stations to swab for samples that can be tested for the coronavirus.
A medical worker prepares to collect samples from individuals who signed up for "drive-through testing" for the coronavirus at a Penn Medicine site in West Philadelphia on Tuesday. Penn, Jefferson and other area hospital systems have set up drive-through stations to swab for samples that can be tested for the coronavirus.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

Officials across Pennsylvania and New Jersey on Tuesday took steps to confront a likely surge in coronavirus cases and the spread of the illness throughout communities despite dramatic new restrictions constraining daily life and limiting human interaction.

In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy proposed reopening closed hospitals and enlisting the Army Corps of Engineers to build temporary medical centers, while the state’s congressional representatives pressed the federal government to send emergency medical supplies.

Pennsylvania leaders, too, were preparing for an increase in demand for hospital beds, and city and state officials raced to set up drive-through testing facilities in the Philadelphia region. Delaware County, which does not have a health department, took the unusual step of asking the state to let neighboring Chester County run its response to the pandemic.

Businesses and workers across the region reckoned with the first day of ordered shutdowns. New Jersey reported receiving a record 15,000 unemployment assistance applications in one day, and Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney compared the potential economic effect of the coronavirus to “World War II or the Depression.”

Nine new cases were announced in the city Tuesday, bringing the number reported in the city to 18. Public Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said those cases were from across Philadelphia and urged residents to assume the virus was everywhere. “We do know that this virus is circulating in the community,” he said.

So far, such “community spread” transmissions have been limited in Pennsylvania, but officials expect more, said Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine.

Farley said at least 200 people were tested Monday at rapid test sites set up by health care systems throughout the city and suburbs. Hundreds more showed up Tuesday to get swabbed at drive-throughs run by Penn Medicine, Jefferson Health, and Main Line Health. The state is also working on establishing two drive-throughs in Philadelphia and Montgomery County.

Montgomery County announced its first case of community spread, with at least 34 cases overall, including a fourth-grade teacher in the Lower Merion School District. New Jersey reported 267 cases of the coronavirus, with 89 new positives on Tuesday, its single largest increase over one day. Pennsylvania health officials confirmed 96 total cases, but that number later grew to 108 when Philadelphia, Montgomery, and Chester Counties reported new patients.

Nationally, the virus reached all 50 states on Tuesday, with at least 100 deaths and more than 5,500 positive cases by one count. After President Donald Trump suggested a possible economic stimulus, the stock market made for a rebound, but New York City residents were told to prepare for a possible shelter-in-place order.

» READ MORE: Closures deal a crippling blow to region's businesses

That state’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, had asked the president for the same type of federal assistance that New Jersey was seeking; Trump said he was "starting the process" to have the Army Corps of Engineers help in New York, but indicated no final decision has been made.

Building temporary hospitals in New Jersey “would be prudent to expand the capacity and alleviate the strain on our hospitals,” Murphy said, “so we can both properly cope with this public health emergency and ensure continuity of care for other emergencies.”

Officials in his administration also said they were in talks with hospitals to convert currently closed wings into rooms for coronavirus patients, and were discussing reopening eight closed hospitals. From one to three of those hospitals are likely to reopen, said state Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli.

Most of the Garden State’s congressional delegation was also pressuring the federal government for emergency medical supplies, writing in a letter that New Jersey has received only a “fraction” of the supplies it requested from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

A call to increase testing for the virus was universal. Commercial and academic labs in Pennsylvania began to offer testing; until last Friday, Pennsylvania’s public health lab had been the only option and had completed just 147 tests.

As the number of cases grows and the use of commercial or hospital labs increases, “we are actually less able to track all of these exposures," Levine said. “We can assume there are people whose exposure we cannot trace back to a known source.”

Delaware County’s bid to allow neighboring Chester County to oversee its pandemic response came after the populous county discovered its lack of a health department meant officials could not get information about local coronavirus cases. Like all counties without health departments, it has been dependent on the state to conduct testing and investigations of its nine cases to date.

Chester County has a slightly smaller population and, with fewer reported cases of the coronavirus, enough resources to cover both counties, officials there said. If approved, Chester County would oversee expanded testing, case investigation, quarantine designations, public health communications, monitoring of emergency rooms, and a public call center.

» READ MORE: Coronavirus testing sites draw worried crowds from around the Philadelphia region

“We think the Chester County Health Department would have more resources and be able to give us more information so we could make better decisions,” said Delaware County Councilman Brian Zidek.

Many of New Jersey’s new cases are in Bergen County, which is the epicenter of New Jersey’s pandemic. Gloucester County saw its first two cases, and Ocean County has one more person who has tested positive.

But the business impact knew no borders. Murphy expanded his social distancing order, directing all indoor shopping malls and amusement parks and centers to close Tuesday until further notice.

Restaurants with private entrances “not attached” to the malls can remain open for takeout or delivery services, like other restaurants in the state. Anchor stores like Target can stay open as long as they have exterior doors, the governor’s spokesperson said.

At Cherry Hill Mall, there was a steep drop in business on Monday, said Tiona Funches of Camden, who works at Shoe Show. Many stores, she said, had already closed.

“We were playing it by ear,” she said. “Now, I guess we don’t have a choice.”

Most officials pledged Tuesday to look for ways to ease the financial burden on small businesses and said they hoped the federal government would assist, while state lawmakers and the White House said they were working to aid people impacted economically by the pandemic.

The Philadelphia Parking Authority said it would no longer enforce meters, kiosks, or residential time limits but would write tickets for safety-related violations, including parking that could block an emergency vehicle.

SEPTA reduced its Regional Rrail operations by 25% Tuesday, taking nearly 200 weekday trains out of service. County elections officials from across Pennsylvania urged the state to postpone the 2020 primary election scheduled for April 28. Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw told commanders to delay arrests in minor crimes ranging from narcotics to theft to prostitution to mitigate the virus’ spread.

The expanding list of cancellations included notices from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the Diocese of Camden that each was suspending public Masses, as most archdioceses already had nationwide. Instead, they encouraged parishioners to participate in religious services over livestreaming.

And while urging people to stay home, officials also called on them to come together as a community. Levine asked residents to donate blood, give to food banks, and check on seniors. Montgomery County Commissioners Chair Val Arkoosh reminded neighbors to help each other and be mindful.

“Right now, it’s OK to not be OK,” Arkoosh said. “This is a very unusual and unprecedented situation that we find ourselves in, and it’s changing every single day, and it’s perfectly normal to feel unsettled.”

Contributing to this article were staff writers Ellie Silverman, Allison Steele, Marie McCullough, Vinny Vella, Frank Kummer, Patricia Madej, Jeremy Roebuck, Sarah Gantz, Jonathan Tamari, John Duchneskie, Erin Arvedlund, Jonathan Lai, Joseph A. Gambardello, and Mike Newall, as well as Sarah Anne Hughes of Spotlight PA.