Gov. Tom Wolf said Tuesday he would stick to his reopening metric statewide, with no exceptions for the Philadelphia region. Amid indications of a slowing infection rate in the region and state, the number of Pennsylvanians who have died from the coronavirus passed 3,000.
Delaware announced its first steps toward recovery with some small businesses allowed to reopen as early as Friday, while New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said data about the virus’ effects indicated it was still too early to set a date for steps toward lifting shutdown restrictions.
Pennsylvania reported 554 deaths, a number representing a backlog of lab data, and 865 new cases of the virus on Tuesday.
“A number of days with less than 1,000 new cases is positive news,” Health Secretary Rachel Levine said. “That is promising. We’re going to need to see if that trend continues.”
The pace of infections was slowing in New Jersey, Murphy said, though hundreds of people are still dying daily: 334 reported Tuesday, bringing the death toll to 8,244. An additional 2,494 had tested positive. Still, the governor said the state was continuing to flatten the curve.
“We have avoided the worst of it by a lot," Murphy said. "Let’s keep at it, because our vigilance is working, it’s paying off, and it needs to keep paying off.”
After requests Tuesday from some officials in the Pennsylvania suburbs to assess county case numbers separately from cases in care homes, Wolf said he would “take into account” how much community spread is occurring outside such homes and other congregate-care facilities when deciding which areas can start to reopen.
“We are trying to make this reopening process as measured, reasonable, and logical as we can, but there will always be a measure of subjectivity in it,” he said.
The governor added that “you still have a troubling situation” in the southeast beyond cases in long-term-care facilities — but he said progress had been made in the region around Pittsburgh and indicated officials would soon make an announcement about that area.
None of the eight southeastern counties — Bucks, Berks, Chester, Delaware, Lancaster, Montgomery, Philadelphia, and Schuylkill — has reached the state’s target goal of fewer than 50 new cases per 100,000 people in the last 14 days. Philadelphia is the farthest from the goal and Schuylkill is closest, according to state data analyzed by The Inquirer.
But in Montgomery County, where the state’s early cases of the virus were concentrated, Commissioner Val Arkoosh said Tuesday the county had “turned the corner.”
The county is still “a little ways away” from meeting the infection-rate goal and still lacks enough rapid testing to safely reopen many businesses or schools, she said. Still, “this is a good time to really start thinking about: what are you going to do differently when we go from red to yellow?” she said to residents, referencing the governor’s color-coded phases of reopening.
More than 80% of the county’s coronavirus-related deaths have been associated with long-term-care facilities, Arkoosh said, noting that sick residents are sometimes transferred to local hospitals while facility employees circulate in the community.
“It’s not correct to think that these individuals are on an island and have no impact on our entire community,” said Arkoosh, a physician with a background in public health.
Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said Tuesday that care-home cases are among the statistics the city is closely tracking and that the city would continue to follow Wolf’s guidance for reopening.
“I would strongly disagree with anyone who says we should discount them,” Farley said. “But if people want to count them separately in any decision-making, I think that’s fine, as it’s clear that they’re important.”
As of Tuesday, 9,625 residents had been sickened at 495 long-term-care facilities in Pennsylvania, Levine said. State officials are having “robust discussions” about whether they can identify facilities with outbreaks, she said, as other states, including New Jersey, have done.
As the number of new cases of the coronavirus reported daily in Philadelphia continued to decrease, cases among inmates in the city’s Department of Prisons dropped to “the lowest point we’ve been at in a while,” with 29 people testing positive Tuesday, the health commissioner said. The daily count of inmates with the virus peaked at about 75 in late April. In total, 194 have tested positive since mid-March.
As officials monitor outbreaks in group-living facilities and prisons, Pennsylvania began to also publicly track coronavirus cases among workers in the food industry on Tuesday.
Of the commonwealth’s confirmed 50,957 cases, 2,032 are among food industry employees at 120 facilities, Levine said. Officials did not say which plants have seen outbreaks. One plant worker at Lebanon County poultry processor Bell & Evans died of the virus, as did a union steward at JBS Beef in Souderton, which temporarily shut down its 1,400-employee facility after workers tested positive.
The additional data come days after a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report showed Pennsylvania has more confirmed cases of the coronavirus among meat production workers — 858 as of Friday — than any other state.
In New Jersey, residents can now report any possible evidence of care-home misconduct related to coronavirus outbreaks to an online state portal while remaining anonymous, Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal said Tuesday.
"We are not alleging misconduct, but we will evaluate whether some facilities put profits over patients,” said Grewal, who began investigating the state’s long-term-care facilities after reports of 18 bodies piling up in a morgue meant for four at a North Jersey nursing home. “We are looking back and we will hold people accountable if anything criminal happened.”
Murphy also said New Jersey will grant temporary emergency licenses to recent graduates of nursing, physician assistant, pharmacy, and respiratory therapy programs so they can join the effort to curb the coronavirus pandemic.
“This means that thousands of recent graduates can quickly join the teams of health-care professionals currently fighting COVID-19,” Murphy said.
Farley said the city has been trying to collect information from people who have recently confirmed cases of COVID-19 to determine how they got exposed to the virus. They are hoping for more survey responses, but Farley said he believed cases were “more people in situations where they really can’t social distance … [than] people who are deliberately ignoring our recommendations.”
Murphy also said Treasury Department officials loosened restrictions on how New Jersey can spend $1.8 billion in federal bailout money, which will allow the state to fund critical services impacted by the pandemic and to make a $467 million payment in school aid due Friday.
“We will put this money to good use for our first responders, our small businesses,” Murphy said, “and because of this guidance, will be able to fill an immediate need to provide the funding we had budgeted for our schools and educators.”