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Wolf extends stay-at-home order. N.J. death toll climbs past 350; field hospitals in the works for Philadelphia

While the deaths and case numbers keep rising, an analysis of New Jersey showed that the curve might be flattening slightly in the Garden State.

Medical workers from Cooper University Health Care and Virtua Health prepare for the first residents to arrive before Camden County's first public drive-thru coronavirus testing site opens on Monday in Camden's Cooper’s Poynt Waterfront Park.
Medical workers from Cooper University Health Care and Virtua Health prepare for the first residents to arrive before Camden County's first public drive-thru coronavirus testing site opens on Monday in Camden's Cooper’s Poynt Waterfront Park.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

On the day that Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf expanded his stay-at-home order statewide, the reported coronavirus death count climbed past 350 on Wednesday in New Jersey, and plans were in the works to set up makeshift hospitals in Philadelphia for the first time since the catastrophic flu outbreak of 1918.

Perhaps hoping to offer some relief from the relentless anxiety generated by the pandemic, Pennsylvania reopened its online liquor business — only to see it become quickly overloaded and forced to close shop. You can take another shot Thursday, the state says.

While the surreal has become routine, and it’s going to stay that way for a while, at least a few positive signs emerged Wednesday. For the rapidly swelling ranks of the financially distressed, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court extended a moratorium on evictions for a month.

And in New Jersey, where areas near New York City have been particularly hard hit, the increase in coronavirus cases has shown some indications of flattening, based on an Inquirer analysis of state figures.

However, with the Garden State’s case total passing 22,000, Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said that several hospitals are seeing a surge of coronavirus patients that is taxing their systems. State officials have purchased 10 million pieces of personal protective equipment that will arrive at warehouses in coming weeks, and hospitals with depleted supplies of equipment will receive the equipment first.

Pennsylvania’s total stood at just over 5,800 cases, with 74 fatalities. New Jersey added more than 90 deaths to its total Wednesday, but it was not known when they had occurred.

While New Jersey’s cases have been concentrated in the northern part of the state — less than 3% of the statewide total has been reported in Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester Counties — Philadelphia, Bucks, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties have about half of Pennsylvania’s.

» READ MORE: When death from coronavirus is a matter of interpretation

So far, 56 deaths have been attributed to the coronavirus in the eight-county Philadelphia region, with nine added Wednesday, including two each in Burlington and Camden Counties.

Wolf acknowledged that his decision to extend his stay-at-home order to the entire state, through Easter, Passover, and the rest of the month, would not be welcomed by everyone, but cases now have been documented in all 67 counties.

“Some might think a month is too long to go without seeing your friends or family,” Wolf said at a news briefing. But if residents don’t stay home, “there are some people you’ll never see again.”

Philadelphia’s total cases passed 1,600 on Wednesday, a 27% jump from the numbers reported Tuesday, with 14 deaths attributed to the virus.

In anticipation of a surge, the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania is talking to federal officials about closing off part of Spruce Street and commandeering Penn’s historic Quadrangle for hospital tents, according to Jeremy W. Cannon, a trauma surgeon helping coordinate the planning effort.

» READ MORE: Philadelphia brings in tent hospitals and extra staff for the coming coronavirus surge

HUP wants to set up field-hospital tents on Spruce Street between 34th and 36th Streets, a heavily used corridor between the campus and the hospital complex.

Franklin Field is undergoing renovation but hasn’t been ruled out entirely.

The city has begun housing coronavirus patients at the Holiday Inn Express in Center City, at 13th and Walnut Streets, and the 13-floor hotel with 150 rooms is the first makeshift quarantine site in Philadelphia, said city Managing Director Brian Abernathy.

The outbreak and its attendant shutdown orders continued to extract devastating economic tolls, and that no doubt hit home for countless people Wednesday, the first of the month, the typical due date for rental and mortgage payments.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court took action, extending a moratorium on evictions, providing much-needed temporary relief for tenants, many of whom owed rent Wednesday for the first time since the state reported its first coronavirus cases.

Four members of Philadelphia City Council called a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures for at least two months beyond when the pandemic is considered over.

» READ MORE: The rent is due, and many can’t pay. Here’s what some Philadelphians are doing in the meantime.

“We need state and federal officials to suspend rent and mortgage payments so we can assure people that we have time to figure out solutions that will help them recover from this crisis and to make people whole so they don’t face mountains of debt afterward,” Councilmember Helen Gym said in a news release.

Trinity Health announced it plans to furlough staff across five hospitals in the Philadelphia metropolitan region, including Wilmington, because the pandemic has been such a blow to revenue, the Catholic nonprofit hospital chain said Wednesday.

The hospitals affected, which employ 125,000 people, are: Mercy Philadelphia Hospital in West Philly; Nazareth Hospital in Northeast Philadelphia; Mercy Fitzgerald Hospital in Darby; St. Mary Medical Center in Langhorne; and St. Francis Healthcare in Wilmington.

New Jersey announced that small businesses that are struggling and need assistance can apply for grant funding from the state’s Economic Development Authority, starting at 9 a.m. Friday.

Economic pain notwithstanding, Wolf said that Pennsylvania State Police are focused on enforcing his order to close all businesses that aren’t “life-sustaining.”

He said that all state residents have a stake in obeying the stay-at-home directive and that he expects compliance “because they know it’s the right thing to do."

Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine earlier in the week warned that the outbreak constituted an “emergency,” and that models predicting when it might peak were wholly reliable.

But the latest numbers from the Garden State appeared to offer a small window of hope that the curve might be flattening in New Jersey.

While case numbers had been doubling every one to two days since mid-March, that doubling rate has slowed to two to three days since late last week, according to an analysis of the figures. It is uncertain whether that trend will continue.

As it was impossible to predict when the outbreak might crest once and for all, it was anyone’s guess as to when life might approach a version of normality and the stay-at-home and business-restriction orders lifted.

In Pennsylvania, the governor’s orders also applied to the state-run brick-and-mortar liquor stores. But the commonwealth did decide to reopen the online spirits shops Wednesday.

It turned out to be a popular decision.

Too popular. The Pennsylvania Fine Wine and Good Spirits website became overloaded with traffic and had to shut down. The site displayed the following message: “Due to overwhelming demand, the online store is not available at this time. Please try again tomorrow or in the coming days.”

Contributing to this article were Inquirer staff writers Oona Goodin-Smith, Laura McCrystal, Rob Tornoe, Aubrey Whelan, Inga Saffron, Mike Newall, Jason Laughlin, Erin McCarthy, Allison Steele, and Mensah M. Dean, along with Sarah Anne Hughes of PA Spotlight.