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Pa. reports 11,000 new cases of COVID-19 in one day, and asks public to help protect hospitals from filling

More than 50,000 Pennsylvanians have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in the last week. More than 5,000 people were being treated for the coronavirus in Pennsylvania hospitals Thursday.

Pedestrians outside an entrance to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania on Thursday.
Pedestrians outside an entrance to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania on Thursday.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

Pennsylvania shattered its record for coronavirus cases logged in a single day by a staggering amount Thursday, reporting more than 11,000 new infections — just one week after Thanksgiving, which experts had predicted could fuel a significant surge.

The day’s increase continued the exponential trajectory of the virus’ spread since the start of November, when days with a few thousand newly reported cases broke records and caused alarm. And it means 50,000 Pennsylvanians have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in the last seven days.

More than 5,000 people were being treated for the coronavirus in Pennsylvania hospitals Thursday, with more than 1,000 in intensive-care units. In a few of the state’s less populated areas, hospitals had run out of ICU beds. Beds remained open around the Philadelphia region, but the need was growing in places: All but eight of Delaware County’s ICU beds were filled, state data showed.

“We have to remember that there are not an unlimited number of hospital beds, but even more importantly, there are not an unlimited number of staff, doctors, nurses,” said Health Secretary Rachel Levine.

Unlike in the spring, when the most severe COVID-19 outbreaks were largely concentrated in Pennsylvania’s most densely populated areas, the fall spread of the virus has begun straining health-care providers across the commonwealth.

Ronald Strony, emergency medicine cochair at Geisinger, a Montour County-based health-care system that serves three million Pennsylvanians, told reporters Thursday that the outbreak is causing “such significant constraints” that the hospital network is struggling to manage its entire population, though it has not been overwhelmed.

“It is a very emotional and mentally difficult time for a lot of workers,” Strony said via video at the Department of Health briefing.

» READ MORE: As COVID-19 surges, Philly-area nurses describe life on the front lines: ‘It’s just exploded’

Messages reinforced

The day’s high number of new cases was not the result of any holiday-related data delays. It’s “the reality of where cases are in Pennsylvania,” said Nate Wardle, a spokesperson for the Department of Health. The state also reported 187 deaths, its second-highest daily toll during the fall surge.

The United States surpassed 14 million known cases Thursday and more than 100,000 people were hospitalized with the virus. Wednesday’s national death toll of 3,157 was the highest single-day total of the pandemic, new data showed.

More than half a year since the pandemic first ravaged cities and hospitals, the country is finding itself back in the same nightmarish place. But this time, the numbers of people infected and hospitalized are higher than in April, when heavily impacted states imposed shutdowns and many people dramatically changed their behavior in a bid to “flatten the curve.”

Officials have said they can avoid such mass shutdowns this time, but they’re worried that in return, people aren’t heeding the simpler mitigation measures as much as they need to.

Government officials and public health experts at all levels have this week sought to reinforce that measures such as mask-wearing and avoiding gatherings work — including President-elect Joe Biden, who said he will call on Americans to wear masks for 100 days — and that individual behaviors can help slow the surge.

“We all have a role to play in what is happening in the hospitals right now,” Levine said at a news briefing Thursday. “The people who make our health-care system work are relying on you to do the right thing.”

» READ MORE: U.S. coronavirus deaths top 3,100 in a single day for the first time

The Pennsylvania Capitol Complex in Harrisburg will close to the public indefinitely on Monday, the commonwealth announced. And Philadelphia International Airport will start providing COVID-19 antigen and PCR tests to travelers who wish to pay for testing.

The state is already under a stay-at-home advisory, meaning residents are asked to stay home except for essential trips.

Philadelphia dips, Jersey rises

The state’s one-day record marked a jump of nearly 3,000 new cases from the previous day. After a spike in reported cases Wednesday, Philadelphia saw 825 new diagnoses Thursday, along with 15 deaths. And New Jersey’s numbers ticked up slightly, with 4,913 new cases and 64 deaths. Statewide, 3,292 people were hospitalized, with 610 in intensive-care units, according to state data released Thursday.

“This pandemic is nowhere near over,” New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy wrote on Twitter.

In Pennsylvania, no region’s hospitals have reached the threshold for temporarily reducing elective procedures, Levine said, but the southwest region surrounding Pittsburgh and the south-central “Keystone region,” which includes Lancaster and Harrisburg, expect staffing shortages in at least a third of their hospitals in the next week.

The counties whose hospital ICUs were completely filled with coronavirus patients, according to state data, included Lycoming, Schuylkill, and Washington. Most have small capacities, with some having fewer than five or 10 ICU beds in total, according to state data.

In the Philadelphia region, Montgomery County had 48 of its 124 ICU beds available, Bucks County had 19 of 42, and Chester County had 30 of 45, according to state data. Philadelphia had about half its intensive-care beds free, with 132 available and 127 occupied.

» READ MORE: Jefferson Health will help test travelers for COVID-19 starting Friday at Philadelphia International Airport

As the nation waits for a coronavirus vaccine to be approved and distributed, Levine reiterated that the first doses will go to health-care workers and residents and staff of long-term care facilities.

Philadelphia School District Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said at a news conference Thursday that he and other education leaders were lobbying to have teachers included in the second wave of those eligible to receive the vaccine.

He said the school staffers need to be near the head of the line so schools can reopen. “If people want to restart economies,” he said, “then we have to get children back into schools.”

Levine has said the vaccine will not be mandatory for schoolchildren. Hite also said Thursday that when Philadelphia students do return — for which a date is not yet set — there will be some kind of COVID-19 testing protocol in place, the details of which have not yet been worked out.

Also Thursday, Philadelphia City Council passed a bill prohibiting landlords from evicting struggling restaurants and limiting late fees for falling behind on rent.

Council also paved the way for hearings on other coronavirus-related issues, including discussing how to handle potential hospital bed shortages, examining the economic impact of shutdown orders, and looking at the pandemic’s impact on jails and prisons.

“I am getting a little disturbed and frightened by the GoFundMe pages for a lot of our” small businesses, Councilmember Bobby Henon said. “I strongly encourage everybody to shop and buy local during these holidays.”

Contributing to this article were staff writers Kristen A. Graham, Sean Collins Walsh, Jason Laughlin, and Rob Tornoe.

» READ MORE: Philadelphia's latest coronavirus guidelines