Pennsylvania appears to be at “the start of the fall resurgence” of the coronavirus pandemic, Secretary of Health Rachel Levine said Wednesday as the state reported more than 1,000 newly confirmed cases for the ninth day in a row.
The uptick is no longer primarily linked to college students, as it was in the early fall, Levine said; broader transmission is occurring, along with some increase in hospitalizations.
“Pennsylvania, clearly, is not an island, and we are reflecting what the rest of the country is seeing,” Levine said at an outdoor news conference in Harrisburg. “We’re certainly seeing a change in the last number of weeks from what we saw before."
By Wednesday, the emerging national surge had become more pronounced, with Midwest and Mountain states seeing some of their highest numbers per capita yet and the national number of daily new cases continuing an upward trajectory.
The United States had recorded more than 7.8 million cases and 216,000 deaths as of Wednesday, according to Johns Hopkins University.
New Jersey reported 953 new cases and nine deaths Wednesday. Pennsylvania confirmed an additional 1,276 cases and 27 deaths. Philadelphia announced 255 cases and three deaths.
The number of COVID-19 patients hospitalized in Pennsylvania is 773, a figure that has nearly doubled compared with last month, Levine said. Still, “significant capacity” remains in the health-care system statewide and about 21% of intensive-care beds are available, she said.
As it tries to get a handle on the resurgence, the Wolf administration began distributing rapid antigen test kits from the federal government to care facilities, colleges and universities, correctional institutions, drug and alcohol treatment centers, and health-care providers. Facilities in counties seeing more significant rises in new cases will be first to receive the kits. The state will receive 250,000 antigen tests per week through December, officials said.
The tests are designed to show if someone is capable of spreading the virus and work best for screening when people have recently been infected with it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. State health officials said the rapid tests will help identify group settings where the disease is spreading and help bolster general testing capacity.
“It’s not just that college-age group that we were seeing in September. We are seeing increases in people in their 20s, in their 30s, in their 40s,” Levine said. Around the country, “it really is small gatherings that tend to be driving this, and I feel like we’re seeing that in Pennsylvania.”
Projections released Wednesday by PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia suggest a significant rise in infection rates in many parts of the country over the next month, but indicate the resurgence is moving more slowly in the Northeast, including in Pennsylvania, likely because of existing prevention measures.
Still, central and northern Pennsylvania are among the areas of the Northeast projected to grow most quickly, and Philadelphia could see a steady increase in cases; the projection suggested the city could reach about 280 cases a day by mid-November.
CHOP’s researchers said a quicker public reaction to increased transmission than in the spring has likely helped slow the growth rate in the Northeast, particularly in northern New Jersey and the New York City region. Still, “risk may abruptly change as colder weather sets in," they said in a news release.
Levine and others said the state is better equipped — with supplies, hospital preparedness, and testing capacity — to react to surges than it was in March.
“Before, [the coronavirus] was just this giant monster coming at us and we didn’t know how big, or from what direction,” said Michael LeVasseur, an epidemiologist and biostatistician at Drexel University. “Now we have more testing, more contact tracers, and we do have more signal” to monitor outbreaks.
On the other hand, he said, if it becomes clear that easing restrictions on indoor dining, bars, and outdoor stadiums is leading to infections, officials may need to reimpose stricter measures. “There’s a really difficult balancing act between public health and economics,” LeVasseur said.
The increase in virus spread comes as newly relaxed state and city crowd limits allow people to gather in larger groups outdoors. With the Eagles set to welcome about 6,000 fans back to Lincoln Financial Field on Sunday, Levine said attendees “should feel safe” with mask-wearing and social distancing because transmission risk is lower outdoors.
State health officials have reviewed data from NFL games in other cities where a limited number of fans were allowed, and “have not seen any evidence of significant increases due to those games,” she said.
The state also has not seen specific links in case increase to other outdoor events, including President Donald Trump’s Harrisburg-area rally Sept. 26 — though Levine noted the process for tracing cases depends on what people who are infected choose to report to the state.
So far, Levine said, the uptick has not prompted the commonwealth to consider a broad shutdown such as the one imposed when the pandemic first hit in the spring.
“We have no plans to have any further business restrictions or stay-at-home orders at this time,” Levine said. “It’s impossible for me to predict the future. But again, we are in a much better place than we were in the spring.”