Pennsylvania hospitals statewide will be able to share supplies so that the areas hit hardest by the coronavirus can get more equipment, under an executive order signed Wednesday by Gov. Tom Wolf.
In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy directed nonessential construction in the state to stop by Friday and clamped down on grocery shopping, ordering stores to limit customer entry, and shoppers and workers to wear masks.
Philadelphia was classified as a potential hot spot for the virus by the federal government, Vice President Mike Pence told Wolf on a call Wednesday, and indicated it may send more aid to Pennsylvania. But city Health Commissioner Thomas Farley suggested the White House might be looking at outdated numbers, saying daily numbers show the growth in the city’s cases is slowing.
“The federal government is actually bumping Pennsylvania up in terms of priority for getting this scarce equipment,” Wolf said. “While it’s not good news that Philadelphia and the southeastern part of the state is seen as a hot spot, it is going to be helpful in getting more … resources.”
Pennsylvania officials on Wednesday reported a total of 309 deaths and 16,239 cases. In the Philadelphia region, 36 deaths were reported by Wednesday evening, bringing the area’s death toll to 236. The state’s infection rate has flattened some, but the daily number of new cases remains high, said Health Secretary Rachel Levine. She cautioned that a surge in the number of new cases and the number of people needing to be hospitalized is still ahead.
“We do not yet have this virus under control,” Wolf said. “We need to buckle down and recommit ourselves to eliminating as much contact as we can with people outside our homes.... If we all continue to work together we can push down that growth rate.”
New Jersey was “not on any plateau,” Murphy said. Its death toll passed 1,500 on Wednesday, with an additional 3,088 positive cases bringing the state’s total to 47,437. Eight of the newly reported deaths were in South Jersey.
Amid all of this, the nation pressed on in what is the holiest of weeks for some religions, many attempting to maintain traditions while practicing social distancing. People should not gather for Passover and Easter celebrations, but should celebrate virtually and at home, officials said. Philadelphia Roman Catholic Archbishop Nelson J. Pérez’s Easter Mass — his first in Philadelphia — will be televised on WHYY and streamed on his Facebook page.
As attempts continued to secure equipment and ensure the state’s hospitals have enough capacity at the virus’s peak, Wolf said Pennsylvania would begin publicly tracking the number of beds and ventilators available in every county on an online hospital preparedness dashboard. Across the state, 51% of hospital beds, 40% of intensive-care beds, and 70% of ventilators were available Wednesday, Levine said.
The governor’s executive order allowing for the transfer of ventilators and personal protective equipment among health-care facilities across the commonwealth will send supplies to the hardest-hit areas.
"This will also prevent sick Pennsylvanians from having to choose which hospital to go to for fear that some have less access to equipment than others," Wolf said.
Currently, the toughest-hit regions of the state are in the southeastern counties and the northeastern area around Hazleton; the Lehigh Valley; and Monroe County, Wolf said. As things change, the system he envisions would allow supplies to be shifted “back and forth” if necessary.
Another makeshift hospital for the region was announced in Bucks County on Wednesday, where the Newtown Athletic Club lent the county a 25,000-square-foot building to use as a temporary medical facility. Beds for 80 to 100 patients were being set up in the indoor soccer and baseball training area, and will be used both for coronavirus patients and for people with other ailments, said Bucks emergency services director Scott Forster.
Another mobile hospital is planned for Montgomery County, its location not yet disclosed.
In Philadelphia, some cases of the virus have emerged in homeless shelters, Managing Director Brian Abernathy said Wednesday. He did not name those shelters or provide the number of cases. He said the city was “aggressively trying to work” on mitigating any effects on homeless services.
After the death of Lt. James Walker, a commander in the traffic division, nearly all officers assigned to the traffic division of the Philadelphia Police Department were self-quarantining for 14 days, department sources said Wednesday. City police will begin wearing cloth masks on the job, Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said Wednesday. The city did not have enough N95 masks to cover routine use by the entire 6,500-member department and other essential city agencies, so officers are saving their N95 masks for specific circumstances, Outlaw said.
Officials are monitoring the number of cops who have tested positive for the virus, are awaiting test results, or are self-quarantining, Outlaw said, but she declined to say how many those are. She said doing so could “lead to panic, or people calling in sick because of fear and paranoia.” Department sources said Monday at least 52 Philadelphia police officers have tested positive for the virus.
Like other cities, Philadelphia’s African American population continues to be affected by the virus at a slightly higher rate, Farley said. The city is trying to target messages to black communities and may plan other outreach, he said.
“Like many other health problems, we may see that this virus affects people who have other disadvantages more,” he said.
Levine said Pennsylvania officials don’t get enough regular data on the racial breakdown among patients but that they are working on ways to obtain and publicize that data. Wolf said he was “heartened” by his call with Pence, who indicated the federal government was “going to be taking a closer look at the ethnic distinctions.”
Health equity “disparities are even more significant now that we have a global pandemic,” Levine said. “We’ll be working to try to make sure those health disparities don’t influence someone’s ability to get the care they need.”
In New Jersey, African Americans make up 15% of the state’s population but have accounted for 22% of deaths from COVID-19, said Murphy, whose new executive orders Wednesday are intended to slow the state’s spread.
Effective at 8 p.m. Friday, grocery stores must limit the number of customers allowed in at one time to 50% of their approved capacity. Employees and shoppers must also wear masks.
Stores are also required to provide special shopping hours for high-risk individuals such as seniors and to erect physical barriers between customers and staff — such as cashiers and baggers — where possible.
Also effective Friday evening, all nonessential construction must cease. Exceptions include projects at hospitals, schools, and affordable housing complexes, along with those in the transportation and utility sector.
Murphy also signed an order moving New Jersey’s June 2 primary to July 7.
With cases in nearly 62% of the state’s nursing homes, the health department said it would start examining staffing plans, isolation procedures and protective equipment inventory levels in every long-term care facility.
The field hospital at the Atlantic City Convention Center is slated to open Tuesday, and the 500-bed hospital in Edison is now operating. The state is asking physicians, respiratory therapists, and chief nursing or medical officers to sign up to work in the temporary hospitals for pay, Murphy said.
And in a grim display of service to the hard-hit state, Wawa donated a 53-foot refrigerated truck to help relieve crowded morgues and funeral homes in Bergen County, where hundreds of residents have died, Murphy said. A Wawa spokesperson confirmed the donation of the truck and said the food service chain “will not be receiving it back.”
Murphy urged residents to stay home — especially as they celebrate Passover, which began Wednesday evening.
“The story of Passover is a story of strength and perseverance,” Murphy said. “So we must exhibit these traits ... throughout Passover and every day until this emergency ends.”
Staff writers Laura McCrystal, Chris Palmer, Ellie Rushing, Vinny Vella, Allison Steele, and Mike Newall contributed to this article.