January is on pace to become Pennsylvania’s deadliest month of the pandemic, with more than 2,700 deaths recorded in the month’s first 14 days, according to a new Inquirer analysis of the state health data — a grim counterpoint to the sense of hope raised by the arrival of the coronavirus vaccine.
It is a continuation of a surge that has seen more than 8,300 Pennsylvanians reported dead since Dec. 1, revealing the true toll of the fall-winter surge of infections that sent case counts skyrocketing.
The last month and a half has accounted for almost half of all of Pennsylvania’s 18,742 coronavirus fatalities since March.
And both Pennsylvania and New Jersey surpassed 18,000 confirmed deaths this week, as Pennsylvania caught up to its once-harder-hit neighbor. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy on Wednesday called the loss “almost unfathomable.”
”We mourn the loss of every one of those lives,” Murphy said, noting the state has also counted nearly 2,100 probable coronavirus deaths. “For anyone who’s still left denying that this is real, I don’t think there’s anything else we can say to try to convince you of reality.”
With the case surge not over yet, the death toll will keep growing; Gov. Tom Wolf tweeted Thursday that intensive care units in the state were “filling up because of COVID-19,” and New Jersey officials warned this week that the state’s hospitals were preparing for a new influx of virus patients.
Philadelphia, its Pennsylvania suburbs, and South Jersey have all experienced surges in the death toll since the end of November, the Inquirer data analysis showed.
New Jersey was averaging 10 deaths a day on Nov. 1; by Wednesday, that seven-day average had reached 92 deaths a day. Over the same span, Pennsylvania’s average has gone from 22 to 223 deaths a day.
On Thursday, the Keystone State reported 7,175 newly confirmed cases and 313 deaths; New Jersey reported 5,967 cases and 94 deaths.
“We continue to lose Pennsylvanians each day to this virus, and we need to protect our friends, family, loved ones and neighbors,” said Maggi Barton, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Health, “ … and do all we can to limit the spread of COVID-19.”
Pennsylvania will update its vaccination plan next week to align with new federal guidance from outgoing Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, Gov. Tom Wolf said. He promised “more specifics” as early as this weekend.
If the state follows the guidance, people 65 and older and people with high-risk medical conditions will be in the next group to get vaccinated. The state has not yet set a date for when that group will become eligible and has asked residents to wait for more information.
“This is a work in progress,” Wolf said. “We will do what we can to make sure we’re getting this out as fairly and quickly as we can.”
Philadelphia, which is administering the vaccine independently from the state, will not change its guidelines to match the federal government’s, the health department said Thursday.
Azar’s announcement on Tuesday, barely a week before President-elect Joe Biden takes, expanded who was eligible in the next phase but injected confusion and upended plans that states had spent weeks making.
Biden was set to unveil a $1.9 trillion coronavirus plan Thursday evening aimed at accelerating the vaccine rollout and addressing other economic and health-care issues caused by the pandemic.
“We’re really not paying too much attention to what Secretary Azar said this week because he’s a lame duck going out the door any day,” Caroline Johnson, Philadelphia’s deputy health commissioner, said in an interview. “We are interested in Biden’s plan, particularly about the releases of vaccine in priority groups.”
Unless the city makes changes, the next group of Philadelphia residents eligible for the vaccine will include people 75 and older, anyone with high-risk medical conditions, and essential workers, as announced by the city earlier this week. People 65 to 74 will be in the following round.
The Philadelphia School District announced its students in second grade and younger will likely return to in-person learning for two days a week sometime in February, and Montgomery County said weekly rapid antigen tests will be available for teachers and high-risk students through April.
The county will also test any children or staff who come down with symptoms of illness during the school day. The testing began this week at schools operating in person in the Lower Merion and North Penn districts, and later this month it will expand to additional public schools, County Commissioners Chair Val Arkoosh announced Wednesday. A similar program will start later this month at private and parochial schools.
Also Thursday, Wolf joined Democratic lawmakers in urging the Republicans who control the legislature to allocate $145 million to hard-hit commonwealth businesses. Wolf said he initiated the transfer just before Christmas, but the General Assembly has yet to authorize turning the money into grants for restaurants, bars, and other establishments.
“All of us have been suffering greatly because of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the governor said, “and that includes businesses through no fault of their own.”
Relief, but by appointment only
New Jerseyans 65 and older or with high-risk medical conditions became eligible to receive the coronavirus vaccine on Thursday, with some immediately making appointments and getting their shots at the state’s vaccination sites.
At a site in Camden County College, there was joy, excitement, and relief among people getting their vaccines.
Anyone who is eligible for the vaccine — that also includes health-care workers, nursing home residents, and first responders — can make an appointment by directly contacting one of the state’s vaccination sites. The state is using an appointment-only system in order to allocate only as many slots as doses are available and to avoid people waiting in long lines for hours.
Residents without internet access can contact vaccination sites directly by phone or call their local pharmacy for guidance.
Eventually, residents will be able to get the shots from their regular doctors, but so far, the state has focused its distribution of doses on pharmacies and larger sites that can accommodate more people per day.
Documentation of age or medical conditions is not required. State health officials have said they are trusting people to abide by the honor system.
People who work in health-care fields and as first responders in New Jersey can be vaccinated there if they don’t live there, he said. Residents can also use any location they choose, but they are asked to return to that same place for their second doses.
“Eventually, this distribution network will grow dramatically,” Murphy told Fox’s Good Day Philadelphia on Thursday.
More than 1.2 million people have registered to get the vaccine, and just under 290,000 people have received the vaccine so far. But with an additional 4.5 million people now eligible for the vaccine, Murphy said the state still needs a lot more doses.
“We’re encouraged by what we’re hearing, both by the outgoing Trump administration and the incoming Biden administration,” he said.
Staff writers Jason Laughlin, Erin McCarthy, Laura McCrystal, Kristen A. Graham, and Frank Kummer contributed to this article, along with graphics editor John Duchneskie.