Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

‘It’s not over yet’: Pa. hospitalizations and deaths keep climbing as vaccines arrive in N.J. and Delaware

N.J. and Delaware gave their first vaccinations Tuesday. Philadelphia said teachers will receive the shots along with other essential workers.

LPN Kimberly Peacock, left, administers the Covid-19 Vaccine shot to Dr. Guy Hewlett, M.D., right, at Cooper University Health Care,Tuesday, December 15, 2020. Cooper University Health Care is among the first group of hospitals in New Jersey to receive the new COVID-19 vaccine
LPN Kimberly Peacock, left, administers the Covid-19 Vaccine shot to Dr. Guy Hewlett, M.D., right, at Cooper University Health Care,Tuesday, December 15, 2020. Cooper University Health Care is among the first group of hospitals in New Jersey to receive the new COVID-19 vaccineRead moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

New Jersey and Delaware joined the list of states to administer their first coronavirus vaccinations Tuesday, as Pennsylvania officials worked to ensure the coming winter storm wouldn’t significantly disrupt the delivery of tens of thousands of doses statewide.

The excitement over the vaccine, however, couldn’t slow the surge: Pennsylvania reported its highest single-day death toll from COVID-19 since May and said nearly 6,300 virus patients were hospitalized across the commonwealth, twice the total from the same point last month. With the United States reaching a record number of hospitalizations, the state was ranking fourth-highest per capita among all states, according to the COVID Tracking Project.

Maura Sammon, a Temple emergency medicine physician, said that the vaccine was “awesome” and that she plans to post selfies on social media after she gets her shot Thursday. But inside the hospital, she’s still watching dying patients say goodbye to their families over Zoom. She fears the worst is ahead.

“There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s not over yet,” she said. “The fact that the vaccine is coming out doesn’t mean that it’s safe to spend Christmas together.”

Amid enthusiasm as 30 employees were immunized Tuesday, health-care workers at Cooper University Hospital in Camden contended with the same concerns.

“It’s just the reality of things,” said Raquel Nahra, an infectious-diseases specialist and Cooper’s hospital epidemiologist.

Six hospitals in New Jersey administered vaccines Tuesday. The recipients will receive the second doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in 21 days.

» READ MORE: First coronavirus vaccines are administered in Pa. and U.S., with thousands more on their way, as nation’s death toll hits 300,000

Getting health-care workers vaccinated begins the process of fortifying the entire community against the virus and will also reduce the staffing shortages plaguing hospitals, said Anthony Mazzarelli, Cooper’s co-president.

A limited supply of the vaccine and uncertainty about how quickly more will be manufactured or how many different vaccines will be approved mean officials cannot be sure when the vaccine will be available to the general public. Federal officials have estimated most people could be immunized by the late spring or early summer.

An ABC/Ispsos poll released this week showed about 40% of Americans said they would take the vaccine as soon as it is available, with an additional 44% willing to get it but planning to wait rather than seeking the shot immediately.

Just 15% of respondents said they would not take the vaccine, according to the poll, which was conducted over the weekend. Health experts have said about 70% of a population must be vaccinated or immune to achieve herd immunity.

In Philadelphia, Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said the city plans a public education campaign once the vaccine is more widely available.

Cooper also plans to hold town halls to encourage people to be vaccinated, which its leaders see as particularly important in predominantly nonwhite Camden because existing inequities, including in health care, have caused the pandemic to disproportionately affect people of color. On Tuesday, Cooper staff members being publicly vaccinated hoped to help inspire people to get the shots.

”You shouldn’t be on the fence,” said Irwin Gratz, a Cooper anesthesiologist. “There’s no fence. You have to leap over the fence. This is the way to go.”

Vaccinating teachers and conserving hospital space

Most Philadelphia hospitals will begin vaccinating health-care professionals who work with coronavirus patients on Wednesday, Farley said. He said it will take “some time” just to vaccinate the city’s group of health-care workers, and it’s unknown when the next group of critical workers will get their shots.

But he said teachers will be in that batch of critical workers and get vaccinated before the general population.

“I would like to see our teachers vaccinated as soon as possible,” Mayor Jim Kenney said Tuesday, noting that it would give them the confidence to return to in-person instruction and would help the economy recover by making it easier for parents to return to work.

The city will receive more Pfizer vaccine next week, though Farley did not know how many doses. He also said the city expects 27,600 doses of the Moderna vaccine if it is approved.

Seven more hospitals in Pennsylvania received vaccine doses Tuesday. The state’s first vaccinations happened Monday, but most hospitals set to get doses this week had not yet gotten the deliveries.

At the same time, hospitals are seeing their beds fill. Statewide, 1,249 coronavirus patients were in intensive care Tuesday. And Pennsylvania surpassed 500,000 confirmed cases of the virus, reporting 9,556 new cases. The seven-day average for deaths per day rose to 193.

In another sign of the effort to manage the surge, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia was prepared to accept patients from area hospitals that become overwhelmed, according to Evan S. Fieldston, an associate chief medical officer at CHOP. The hospital can take certain non-coronavirus patients 35 or younger, in a bid to free up beds at other facilities treating COVID-19.

“We have open beds — not a lot — but we have open beds,” Fieldston said. “It’s the way we can do our part.”

There were 920 patients in Philadelphia hospitals as of Tuesday, Farley said, representing an increase of 30 since last week. But he said that he now expects hospitalizations to remain below 1,000 and that the post-Thanksgiving spike in new cases may be subsiding.

» READ MORE: Philadelphia hospitals prepare to give COVID-19 vaccines this week. Who will go first?

The city had averaged 784 confirmed cases each day in the week that ended Saturday, with 10.8% of tests coming back positive. Those numbers are expected to rise as delayed test results come in, but are lower than the prior week, which had an average of 1,028 cases per day and marked the first time the average surpassed 1,000.

Storm preparations

With a winter storm prepared to dump snow across the state and region, vaccine shipments remained on track, state officials said Tuesday.

Any vehicle or road restrictions imposed by the state during the storm won’t apply to vaccine shippers. Gov. Tom Wolf and other emergency officials said that if any deliveries are delayed, they expected it would be by a day at most.

Wolf and Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency Director Randy Padfield said residents can do their part by staying off the roads unless necessary. That also assists first responders heading to weather- and virus-related emergencies, they said.

“As the COVID vaccine is being distributed, anything you can to ensure safe travels to the hospital will provide a benefit to all of us,” said Maj. Bruce Williams, director of the Pennsylvania State Police Bureau of Patrol Operations.

» READ MORE: Dozens of Pennsylvania restaurants and gyms remain open as health secretary begs businesses: ‘work with us’

As some restaurants and gyms remained open for indoor operations in defiance of Pennsylvania’s three-week “pause” that shut them down until Jan. 4, parents and board members in a Pittsburgh-area school district sued state officials over a requirement that public schools close for cleaning and contact tracing if a certain number of cases breaks out within the school building.

They asked the Commonwealth Court to overturn the state’s “attestation order” that took effect Nov. 24 and mandated the conditional school closures and the order imposed by the state last week. Representatives for Wolf and the health and education secretaries declined to comment on the lawsuit but said in a statement that the orders “are a bridge to a better future in Pennsylvania and an opportunity to buy us time as hospitals statewide face a surge … and vaccines likely will not be widely available for months.”

Contributing to this article were staff writers Allison Steele, Laura McCrystal, Erin McCarthy, Maddie Hanna, Rob Tornoe, Anna Orso, and Patricia Madej.