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COVID-19 cases rise across the region, amid a ‘major’ outbreak at a Philly treatment center

As Philadelphia grapples with a new surge, more than 80 staffers and patients at an addiction treatment facility in West Philadelphia have tested positive for COVID-19 in the last two weeks.

Wearing masks and standing socially distanced, people including Drexel Student Akmir Yatif (front) wait in line to vote at Philadelphia City Hall on Monday. Tuesday is the last day to request a mail-in ballot.
Wearing masks and standing socially distanced, people including Drexel Student Akmir Yatif (front) wait in line to vote at Philadelphia City Hall on Monday. Tuesday is the last day to request a mail-in ballot.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

Pennsylvania and New Jersey each reported more than 1,000 new coronavirus cases on Monday, as the fall resurgence blanketing the region and the country showed no sign of easing and an outbreak had taken hold at one of Philadelphia’s largest addiction treatment facilities.

More than 80 staffers and patients at the Kirkbride Center, a facility in West Philadelphia, have tested positive for COVID-19 in the last two weeks. In an email sent Friday to more than 50 addiction treatment professionals, a city recovery house specialist wrote the “major breakout” of the virus had prompted Kirkbride to halt new admissions and quarantine some residents.

It was the second such outbreak at the treatment center since the start of the pandemic, and it comes as the state has reported more than 1,000 new coronavirus infections each day for the last 21 days.

All major indicators of the virus' spread — daily case counts, percent positivity of those tested, hospitalizations — are on the rise in Pennsylvania, and new cases are increasing in all age groups, Health Secretary Rachel Levine said Monday. Pennsylvania reported seven deaths and 1,407 new cases, with a seven-day average of 1,769 new cases a day.

With the infection rate among those tested having reached 5% — the benchmark that epidemiologists say indicates a troubling level of community spread — the state is at “kind of a crossroads,” Levine said at a news briefing. She urged Pennsylvanians to keep wearing masks, practice social distancing, and avoid gatherings.

“We need to use all the tools in our toolbox in order to work to control the spread of COVID-19,” Levine said. “We cannot rely on any strategy that relies on ‘herd immunity.’ That means basically letting it burn, and that is not a good public health strategy to follow.”

New Jersey reported 1,223 new cases and seven deaths. Its average over the last seven days rose to 1,247 new cases a day, and its transmission rate hit 1.2, which means each patient sickens 1.2 more people on average. In Newark, the state’s largest city, a dramatic spike in cases led Mayor Ras Baraka to order a nightly 8 p.m. closing time for nonessential businesses and indoor restaurant service starting Tuesday.

“We’re in a tough spot right now,” said Gov. Phil Murphy, who returned to work Monday after testing negative for the coronavirus for the fourth time since learning of a potential exposure last week.

The rest of the country is feeling it, too: Last week saw the highest number of coronavirus cases nationwide since the pandemic’s start. After new infections reported in one day surpassed 80,000 for the first time on Friday and again on Saturday, Sunday saw nearly 60,800 reported, according to Johns Hopkins University.

New cases are also rising in other parts of the world. France, India, Italy, and the United Kingdom have reported among the highest volumes of new cases, according to the data.

On a day when President Donald Trump, speaking in Pennsylvania, again claimed without evidence that “we’re rounding the turn” and “won’t be hearing so much” about the coronavirus by Election Day, the total number of recorded U.S. cases exceeded 8.6 million.

Colleges also continue to grapple with spread; in Lewisburg, Bucknell University canceled in-person classes for a week after an uptick in cases. People who participated in large gatherings at off-campus apartment buildings in State College on Saturday to watch Penn State’s football game may face fines and discipline, the borough announced. And Temple University pushed back the start of its spring semester and eliminated spring break.

» READ MORE: Trump barnstorms across Pa. as coronavirus spikes lead to calls for him to cancel rallies

The number of Pennsylvanians hospitalized rose by a few hundred in the last week, and officials expect hospitalizations will keep rising. Although the number of current hospitalizations — 1,104 — is lower than the 3,000-plus people hospitalized during the pandemic’s peak, Levine said public health officials were concerned by the increases.

Cases are also increasing in Pennsylvania’s long-term care facilities, with more than 800 reported in the last week, as well as nearly 2,200 cases among school-aged children, Levine said. Merion Elementary, in the Lower Merion School District, announced Monday it would close “as a precautionary measure” after a staff member tested positive for the coronavirus.

Health officials consistently warn that communal settings are particularly vulnerable to outbreaks. Levine said Monday the amount of spread in a communal facility is directly related to how robustly the virus is spreading in the outside community.

Philadelphia announced that it had logged 1,020 new cases from Friday to Sunday. It was unclear if any were connected to Kirkbride.

A spokesperson for the city Health Department declined to even acknowledge the Kirkbride outbreak, citing privacy concerns and saying: “There have been outbreaks in facilities, and the Health Department has worked closely with facilities that have had one or more cases to arrest the spread of the coronavirus in those facilities and will continue to do so.”

But Frederick Baurer, the 270-bed facility’s medical director, said Monday evening that the outbreak began about two weeks ago, and that Kirkbride is working with the Regional Response Health Collaboration Program, a state-sponsored program that helps care facilities prevent and deal with COVID-19 outbreaks. After the outbreak began, “very aggressive testing” uncovered a number of asymptomatic cases, Baurer said.

Most patients and staff at the facility were asymptomatic, and those who fell ill had manageable symptoms, he said. No one at the facility has died or been hospitalized. The facility has halted new admissions, and the remaining employees and residents are being tested for the virus weekly. Those exposed to the virus — people who have been on a unit with someone who’s tested positive — or who test positive themselves are not allowed to leave the facility without quarantining, Baurer said.

During the spring outbreak, 46 people tested positive, with some quarantining at a Center City Holiday Inn that the city outfitted for people who had nowhere to isolate. Some sources familiar with the incident told WHYY that the center had acted too slowly to contain that first outbreak; officials said then that testing and masks had been hard to come by in the early days of the pandemic and they had moved as swiftly as they could.

The facility then put a universal mask policy in place, and the facility had not reported any positive tests in the last five months.

Baurer said it was no coincidence the facility’s outbreaks coincided with surging cases in the community. “We need to be really cognizant of the dangers — to be smart about protecting yourself and people around you.”

» READ MORE: Once a COVID-19 vaccine is here, there will be a new challenge: Convincing people it’s safe

Staff writers Allison Steele, Rob Tornoe, Laura McCrystal, Susan Snyder, Maddie Hanna, and Sean Collins Walsh contributed to this article, along with the Washington Post.