4:10 PM - January 7, 2021
4:10 PM - January 7, 2021

Montco opens first vaccination clinic

After opening its first vaccination clinic on Wednesday for people who live and work in the county, Montgomery County has vaccinated 861 health-care workers out of an estimated 20,000 who qualify, said Val Arkoosh, chair of the county commissioners.

Health-care workers should visit the county website to fill out a survey that will be reviewed by the Office of Public Health, which is sending out registration links to the appointment system for vaccinations at the Montgomery County Community College clinic.

The office plans to vaccinate approximately 800 people per day with its current supply of vaccine, which totals 7,000 doses. So far, the county has administered 1,600 partial doses and expect to receive another 3,000 doses next week. Until the county receives more doses, Arkoosh said, there is no point in opening another vaccination clinic. But the hope is that vaccinations for seniors over age 75 will begin by the end of the month, Arkoosh said.

“This will depend upon how much vaccine we receive,” she said. “We ask that everyone have patience as we start this initial rollout. Right now the demand for vaccinations is greater than our supply.”

Arkoosh said that in about a week or two, comparing how many doses have been received to how many have been given will be a good gauge of how the vaccine rollout is going.

“Right now it’s been a pretty fluid situation, because the majority of the vaccine that’s come into the county has actually gone to our hospitals and so we don’t have any control over how that is being administered,” she said. “In about another week we’ll have a much better sense of the flow of this and what we can start to consistently expect here in the county.”

The county is working with a number of institutions and groups that work with essential workers, such as the public school system, to make sure individuals who qualify for the next dose of vaccine are notified. Arkoosh said that reaching out to those who are 75 and older will “be a little more complicated,” and that once the Office of Public Health has a better idea of the timeline for when seniors can be vaccinated, they will conduct outreach “much more directly.”

Montgomery County also reported 387 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday and 447 new cases Thursday, as well as 24 additional deaths for those two days.

— Bethany Ao

3:20 PM - January 7, 2021
3:20 PM - January 7, 2021

Pa. teachers union accuses Gov. Wolf of ‘rushing’ students back into classrooms

Pennsylvania’s largest teachers union pushed back Thursday on new state guidelines advising schools to consider teaching elementary students in person — accusing Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration of “rushing” students back into classrooms before it was safe to do so.

“We have serious concerns about any plan to allow more students to attend school in-person without ensuring that all schools are following the state’s COVID-19 health and safety guidance,” Rich Askey, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, said in a statement.

“As COVID-19 cases increase to near-record levels in Pennsylvania and as a more contagious strain of the virus has been identified here, this is no time to encourage schools to bring more students and staff in contact with one another in areas with high rates of community spread,” he said.

Health Secretary Rachel Levine and acting Education Secretary Noe Ortega said Thursday that the state would revise its guidance to schools as of Jan. 25, recommending that schools consider providing some in-person instruction to elementary students even when coronavirus transmission levels are substantial. Levine said recent studies had shown that when measures like masking and social distancing are in place, “it may be safer for younger children, particularly elementary grade students, to return to in-person instruction.”

Askey questioned whether the administration had ensured that school districts were following the state’s mitigation measures. The state has required public schools teaching students in person to agree to revert to virtual instruction if they record certain numbers of coronavirus cases among students and staff.

The state’s move approving some in-person instruction is a shift from its previous guidance, which called for all-virtual instruction while coronavirus spread is at substantial levels.

Despite that guidance, a number of school districts around the region have already been offering some level of in-person instruction. Some districts, however, have been operating virtually since March — the largest being Philadelphia, which has no timeframe for returning to classrooms.

— Maddie Hanna

2:45 PM - January 7, 2021
2:45 PM - January 7, 2021

New Jersey reports 6,314 new cases of the virus

New Jersey on Thursday reported 6,314 additional confirmed cases of the coronavirus and 128 additional deaths from virus-related complications.

In the state’s hospitals, 3,711 people are hospitalized with the virus, with most in the North and Central regions.

Since the pandemic began, at least 510,839 New Jerseyans have been infected by the virus and 17,587 have died.

— Erin McCarthy

1:54 PM - January 7, 2021
1:54 PM - January 7, 2021

Philadelphia reports 724 new coronavirus cases

Pedestrians wearing face masks to reduce the spread of the coronavirus are reflected in windows as they walk past a Drexel University building in West Philadelphia on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020.
TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Pedestrians wearing face masks to reduce the spread of the coronavirus are reflected in windows as they walk past a Drexel University building in West Philadelphia on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020.

Philadelphia reported 729 new confirmed cases of the coronavirus Thursday.

The city also announced 23 additional deaths due to COVID-19, bringing the total number of residents who have died to 2,573.

As of Thursday, there were 660 patients with the coronavirus in Philadelphia hospitals. Of those patients, 90 were on ventilators.

— Laura McCrystal

1:38 PM - January 7, 2021
1:38 PM - January 7, 2021

Camden County officials express frustration at vaccine rollout pace

Camden County Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli Jr. speaks at a news conference before the opening of a new coronavirus testing site at the DMV office in Camden, N.J., on Wednesday, April 29, 2020.
TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Camden County Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli Jr. speaks at a news conference before the opening of a new coronavirus testing site at the DMV office in Camden, N.J., on Wednesday, April 29, 2020.

Camden County has hired 50 people to administer COVID-19 vaccines to health care workers, and has a facility ready to inject up to 500 people a day.

One major problem: It has no doses to give.

Louis Cappelli Jr., director of the Camden County Board of Directors, lashed out Thursday at the Trump administration, blaming it for what he said was a lack of coordination and leadership.

“I know there was something called Operation Warp Speed,” Cappelli said. “Not a good name.”

”There’s a lot of confusion out there right now about the vaccine,” Cappelli said. “The biggest problem ... right now is simply the federal government. The Trump administration has no real plan to distribute it. They’ve been lackadaisical.

Counties throughout the region are in similar situations, he said, as some seem to be receiving doses and others not.

— Frank Kummer

12:50 PM - January 7, 2021
12:50 PM - January 7, 2021

Pittsburgh Steelers won’t have fans in stands for playoff game this weekend

The Pittsburgh Steelers won’t be able to host fans when they play the Cleveland Browns in their wild card playoff game at Heinz Field on Sunday, the team announced Thursday on Twitter.

The organization had hoped to have season ticket holders and other fans at a capacity similar to the ones they had at their October and November games, before Pennsylvania instituted stricter mitigation measures, Steelers spokesman Burt Lauten said in the statement.

That means only family and friends of players can attend Sunday’s game in Pittsburgh, Lauten said.

— Erin McCarthy

12:21 PM - January 7, 2021
12:21 PM - January 7, 2021

Pennsylvania reports 9,698 new confirmed coronavirus cases

Registered nurse Tria Jones, right, swabs a patient during testing for COVID-19, at a community testing site organized by Philadelphia FIGHT Community Health Centers, at Mifflin Square Park, Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020.
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Registered nurse Tria Jones, right, swabs a patient during testing for COVID-19, at a community testing site organized by Philadelphia FIGHT Community Health Centers, at Mifflin Square Park, Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020.

Pennsylvania on Thursday reported 9,698 additional confirmed cases of the coronavirus as the daily tally continues to rise in the days after the holidays.

In the commonwealth’s hospitals, about 5,613 people are hospitalized with the virus, a number nearly double the spring peak but slightly less than the record highs of last month. Of those patients, 1,120 are in intensive-care units.

A day after Pennsylvania recorded its highest daily death number since May, the commonwealth logged another 265 deaths from virus-related complications.

At least 177,229 frontline health workers have been vaccinated in Pennsylvania.

Since the pandemic began in March, at least 693,087 Pennsylvanians have been infected with the coronavirus and 17,179 have died.

— Erin McCarthy

11:28 AM - January 7, 2021
11:28 AM - January 7, 2021

Pennsylvania elementary schools encouraged to bring students back to the classroom later this month, Department of Education says

Molly Colbridge, kindergarten teacher speaking to students at Discovery Charter School, opened in-person on Monday, August 31, 2020.
ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer
Molly Colbridge, kindergarten teacher speaking to students at Discovery Charter School, opened in-person on Monday, August 31, 2020.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education on Thursday encouraged the commonwealth’s schools to return elementary school students, students with disabilities, and students enrolled in English-as-second-language programs to the classroom in a hybrid learning model as soon as later this month despite substantial community spread in every county.

Acting Education Secretary Noe Ortega and Health Secretary Rachel Levine said the benefits of in-person education to the development of students in these populations outweigh the risks of them becoming sick with the virus or spreading it to teachers, staff, parents, or others in the community, if the required mitigation measures are followed.

The new recommendation will go into effect January 25, replacing the previous guidance that urged elementary schools in counties with substantial community spread to teach students remotely. Remote learning remains the sole recommendation for middle schools and high schools across the commonwealth.

Schools around the region have taken different approaches to the state’s guidance throughout the pandemic. Some, including the Philadelphia School District, have been virtual since March, while others have brought at least some grade levels back five days a week.

Like the previous Pennsylvania guidance, Thursday’s update does not constitute a “mandate” for schools, Ortega said, and it is still up to school leaders to determine which instructional model is safest in their area.

The decision to amend Pennsylvania’s guidelines was made in conjunction with the Department of Health.

“We know that it is impossible to eliminate the risk of disease transmission entirely in a school setting when community spread is present,” Levine said, but research has shown that elementary school students don’t spread the virus easily when public health measures are taken and, if they become infected, generally experience less serious cases.

— Erin McCarthy and Maddie Hanna

9:41 AM - January 7, 2021
9:41 AM - January 7, 2021

A case of the new, more transmissible coronavirus variant has been confirmed in Pennsylvania

A staff person at the Jefferson Health coronavirus testing site holds a swab and container in the parking lot of Richard Allen Preparatory Charter School, in Southwest Philadelphia, Wednesday, November 11, 2020.
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
A staff person at the Jefferson Health coronavirus testing site holds a swab and container in the parking lot of Richard Allen Preparatory Charter School, in Southwest Philadelphia, Wednesday, November 11, 2020.

A Pennsylvanian has been infected with a new, more transmissible variant of the coronavirus, Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine said Thursday.

The person resides in Dauphin County, where Harrisburg is located, the secretary said in a statement, and was exposed to the variant outside of the U.S.

“This individual was a traveler,” Levine said at a news conference. “It was not a community spread case.”

He or she recovered in isolation at home after experiencing mild symptoms, Levine said, and case investigators have notified the person’s close contacts. She could not disclose additional information to protect patient privacy.

“This was really not surprising,” Levine said of the first case. “We expect to see some more cases of the variant in Pennsylvania and the United States. There is no evidence that it is the dominant strain in any part of the United States.”

The new variant first raised alarm last month as it spread quickly across the United Kingdom, contributing to record high case counts, overwhelming hospitals, and leading to new lockdown measures. In London, 1 in 30 people are now estimated to have been infected, the New York Times reports. While experts say the new variant spreads more easily, it is too early to know just how much more transmissible it is. There is no evidence it makes people sicker or will yield the vaccines ineffective.

“Public health experts are in the early stages of working to better understand this new variant, how it spreads and how it affects people who are infected with it,” Levine said.

Since November, she said, Pennsylvania has been sending 10 to 35 random virus samples to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention every other week for genetic analysis to detect any possible variants. Earlier this week, state health officials said they were working to do that analysis in their own labs sometime soon.

— Erin McCarthy

8:30 AM - January 7, 2021
8:30 AM - January 7, 2021

Pa. records highest virus death count since May, while New Jersey expands vaccine pool

A person in a mask walks along the Delaware River waterfront in Camden.
TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
A person in a mask walks along the Delaware River waterfront in Camden.

New Jersey’s top health officials estimated that vaccinations could be widely available by April or May, while announcing that police officers and firefighters in the state can start receiving shots on Thursday, the first expansion of the pool of people eligible at this early stage.

More than 450,000 New Jersey residents preregistered to receive the coronavirus vaccine in one day, Gov. Phil Murphy said Wednesday, adding that the high demand for the vaccine is encouraging even though it caused delays and a rough launch for the state’s web portal Tuesday. People who preregister could have a chance at getting shots sooner than the spring — but the state has asked only health-care workers to use the website for now.

The eagerness among many for the vaccine comes as a possible spike in infections looms in the post-holiday weeks. But Pennsylvania is still seeing the fatal effects of the intense preholiday surge, with 368 coronavirus-related deaths reported Wednesday, the highest number in one day since May.

Health officials had expected a potential higher number of deaths this week due to slow reporting during the holidays. Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine and other officials have said weeks may pass before the projected surge is fully reflected in the commonwealth’s numbers, and it is too early to know what impact travel and gatherings will have on case counts, hospitalizations, and deaths.

— Justine McDaniel, Alison Steele, and Erin McCarthy

7:50 AM - January 7, 2021
7:50 AM - January 7, 2021

Wondering when it’ll be your turn to get the vaccine? You’re not alone.

Cornelia Lavong, Vice President of Clinical Operations and Chief of Nursing with Red Lion Home Healthcare gets vaccinated by Pat DeHorsey. Medical staff and volunteers give COVID-19 vaccinations at Montgomery County Community College on Wednesday morning January 6, 2021.
ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer
Cornelia Lavong, Vice President of Clinical Operations and Chief of Nursing with Red Lion Home Healthcare gets vaccinated by Pat DeHorsey. Medical staff and volunteers give COVID-19 vaccinations at Montgomery County Community College on Wednesday morning January 6, 2021.

Vaccine doses in Pennsylvania and New Jersey are available only to health-care workers and nursing home residents right now, but it may be just weeks before other groups could begin to get in line.

When can you get in line?

It depends on your job, age, health, and exposure risk. If you aren’t a health-care worker or nursing home resident, you aren’t yet eligible and you’ll have to wait for more clarity from government officials. When the states receive enough vaccine doses to open up the next phase of vaccinations, there will be more information available for people who are eligible about how to sign up for a shot. Right now, health officials are saying vaccination of health-care workers could be largely complete by early to mid-February, though there’s no guarantee.

— Jason Laughlin and Justine McDaniel

7:17 AM - January 7, 2021
7:17 AM - January 7, 2021

Thursday roundup: U.S. set hospitalization record as nation’s attention turned to insurrection at the Capitol