As the toll of the coronavirus surge continued to strain the region, Pennsylvania reported more than 100 coronavirus-related deaths for the third straight day Friday, pushing the average death rate to its highest level since early June.
The country recorded more than 2,000 deaths for Thursday for the first time since May, according to data reported Friday, and the national death toll now exceeds the White House’s worst predictions made at the end of March. At least 252,564 Americans have lost their lives to the pandemic as the country averages 1,300 coronavirus-related deaths a day.
And with Thanksgiving next week, the U.S. is on pace to surpass 200,000 daily cases next week, according to data from Johns Hopkins University, which reported 187,833 new cases Friday.
Coronavirus cases at the federal detention center in Philadelphia have ballooned in recent weeks, with 199 prisoners and staff members infected.
Two members of the Pennsylvania House contracted the virus this week, prompting one Democratic lawmaker to file a formal complaint Friday alleging unsafe working conditions.
And after bringing students back to classrooms for the first time this week, the Cherry Hill School District announced it would shift to virtual classes starting Nov. 30 because of the surge in cases. The decision came after Camden County health officials notified superintendents that the county will likely reach its “very high risk” threshold by Thanksgiving.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said residents can still change the trajectory of the disease surge if they stop gathering in groups, start wearing masks, and follow other public health recommendations.
“It is going to get unequivocally worse,” he said. “That includes everything from cases per day to hospitalizations. Can behavior impact that curve? You betcha.”
The day after Pennsylvania’s top health official said a coronavirus vaccine could arrive in the state next month if the federal approval process goes smoothly, Murphy also said New Jersey could get its first shipment of about 130,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine by the end of December.
Pennsylvania reported 6,808 new cases and 108 deaths Friday, making a total of 334 deaths in three days. The seven-day average was 66 deaths a day. New Jersey reported 3,635 cases and 23 deaths, with an average 27 deaths a day.
Philadelphia reported 1,054 new cases and seven deaths. The city also announced a continued increase in hospitalizations in the city, with 602 patients in city hospitals.
Against the backdrop of wildly rising case counts, the debate over whether to allow students in schools raged on — spurred by a joint statement signed Thursday by Murphy and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, along with five other Northeastern governors, that in-person learning remained safe.
That drew criticism from New Jersey’s largest teachers’ union, which accused Murphy of minimizing the risk of in-person instruction. Last week, experts at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia urged schools to shut down classroom instruction.
On Friday, Murphy said he was committed to keeping schools open for in-person classes. He said contact tracing and testing are preventing widespread outbreaks among students and staff.
“The growing body of medical research shows that the path we are on with regard to in-person instruction is the right one,” he said. “It is the safe one. And we’re also seeing the increasing evidence of the importance of time in school on a child’s mental health and learning.”
The New Jersey Education Association questioned the data, and leaders said they were “dismayed” that the governors “have downplayed the danger posed to students and school staff participating in in-person instruction during the current COVID-19 surge in our region.”
“We agree wholeheartedly that in-person learning is the best possible scenario for all children, but only when that is safe. In too many places, it is simply not safe now,” NJEA leaders Marie Blistan, Sean M. Spiller, and Steve Beatty said in a statement.
But Murphy said what is driving up cases is behavior and social gatherings outside of schools.
“If you look at where the safe places are in the state, and where contact tracing is as good as it gets, outside of our hospitals and health-care systems, it’s the schools,” he said, pledging that state officials would continue working with district leaders to ensure safety.
As of this week, New Jersey had reported 56 instances of in-school transmission that led to 239 known cases.
In Pennsylvania, which isn’t reporting school outbreaks or case numbers, Wolf’s administration has recommended that schools in areas with “substantial” transmission offer fully virtual instruction. That currently applies to 59 of the state’s 67 counties, but many schools remain open.
Asked why the governor signed the joint governors’ statement given his administration’s guidelines, a spokesperson said Thursday that Wolf “has said that all Pennsylvanians need to unite to slow the spread of the virus so that [it] is safe for children to remain in the classroom, where possible.”
Also this week, Murphy’s office released guidelines for nursing homes and other long-term facilities for managing the release of residents whose families choose to take them out of their homes for Thanksgiving visits — even though state officials urged families not to do that.
Department of Health spokesperson Donna Leusner said in an email that families and the homes asked the state for guidance on such visits.
“The Department of Health cannot force people to stay in a facility, so we are giving guidance to do it safely if they do decide to leave,” Leusner said.
But officials warn that doing so could increase the chance of bringing coronavirus outbreaks into nursing homes.
Many homes have improved virtual visiting options, and some allow outdoor visits, said Rianna DeLuca, a disease control specialist with the Camden County Health Department.
As of Friday, 285 facilities had coronavirus outbreaks, according to state data. In Pennsylvania, 1,197 facilities had outbreaks on Friday.
“We are still concerned about the number of outbreaks we are seeing in long-term care, so we need to be especially vigilant to protect this population,” New Jersey Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said Monday.
Similar concerns remain for other congregate settings, including prisons and detention centers.
Along with Fort Dix in New Jersey, the Philadelphia Federal Detention Center now has one of the largest outbreaks in the federal system, with 171 prisoners and 28 staff infected as of Friday.
Some of the most vulnerable may be released on bail: A federal judge this week ordered all prisoners and their lawyers be notified “of the ability to request judicial review of the detainee’s continued custody based on any medical condition” known to heighten the risk of a severe infection.
“The facility is locked down: no attorney visits permitted; no social visits either. Communications are extremely limited. Inmates are out only three times a week for 30 minutes to shower and make monitored calls,” Linda Dale Hoffa, a lawyer with Dilworth Paxson, said in an email.
Hoffa, who is representing the FDC prisoners in conjunction with the Public Interest Law Center, said the communication blackout has left families panicked as the number of positive cases has continued to climb.
A spokesperson for the federal Bureau of Prisons noted that testing and mitigation efforts have expanded in recent months, and the bureau is evaluating those at greatest risk for possible home confinement, where appropriate. The spokesperson did not provide details specific to the FDC.
The virus’ rapid spread in Philadelphia and Fort Dix mirrors the pattern across the state prison system, where there are now 824 prisoners and 421 staff infected, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.
Staff writers Laura McCrystal, Maddie Hanna, Melanie Burney, and Rob Tornoe contributed to this article.