Biden says reopening schools will be a top priority
Joe Biden pledged Tuesday to bring the coronavirus pandemic under enough control to open most of the nation’s schools during his first 100 days as president — going much further on the issue than he has in the past, even while warning that the U.S. is facing a “dark winter.”
The president-elect said that promise is dependent on Congress providing sufficient funding to protect students, teachers and campus staff. He made it during an event in Delaware to introduce a team of health experts set to help the new administration combat a virus that has already killed more than 285,000 Americans.
Biden said he plans to distribute at least 100 million vaccines during his first 100 days in the White House and will seek to reopen most of the nation’s schools over the same period.
”It should be a national priority to get our kids back into school and keep them in school,” Biden said. “If Congress provides the funding, we need to protect students, educators and staff. If states and cities put strong public health measures in place that we all follow, then my team will work to see that the majority of our schools can be open by the end of my first 100 days.”
Biden provided few details on how he will achieve that goal except to say that officials will prioritize getting vaccines to educators “as soon as possible” after health care personnel and people in long-term care facilities have gotten them. While still a candidate, Biden released a plan in July for resuming in-person classroom instruction during the pandemic that promised to send Congress an emergency funding package to help schools reopen with a price tag worth up to $30 billion.
Pennsylvania contract tracing officials said nearly 10 months into the pandemic, they were still hopeful that residents would become more willing to cooperate with contact tracers who are doing coronavirus case investigations.
Lindsey Mauldin, the Pennsylvania Department of Health’s special assistant on contact tracing, said fighting the stigma around tracing is challenging. Staffing and the increased number of new cases also plays a role, she added, and the commonwealth has been prioritizing contact tracing for high-risk cases as the pandemic surges.
During the week of Nov. 22 to 28, only 13% of all confirmed cases had a case investigation started within 24 hours, according to commonwealth data, and an additional 5% had a case investigation started within 48 hours.
But she said she was optimistic that those numbers could improve as word spreads about contact tracing’s importance, particularly as cases and hospitalizations continue to rise to unprecedented levels, and about the benefits of engaging in these conversations.
“When they hear from us, they’re surprised to hear from us,” Mauldin said of notifying contacts of people who have tested positive. “A lot of times what we know and what we see with folks doing large gatherings is they think, ‘This won’t happen to me.’ What we see [after we talk to them] is they’re educated, they’re learning more about the virus and about what we are telling them about it.”
Free temporary COVID-19 site opening in Delaware County
Delaware County will be among the next group of Pennsylvania counties to open a temporary coronavirus testing site through a state initiative, commonwealth officials announced Tuesday.
The free drive-through site will be open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday through Monday at Delaware County Community College on South Media Line Road in Media.
The pop-up location is part of a commonwealth program, which was announced last week, to increase testing in counties without their own health departments amid the latest surge in coronavirus cases. Each week for the next 11 weeks, five strike teams will be sent to five different counties to operate these temporary testing locations.
The first week’s batch of sites in Butler, Bedford, Mifflin, Tioga, and Northampton Counties were not overcrowded, said director of testing and contact tracing Michael Huff.
“It clearly did not match our capacity. I say that because I want people to step forward if they want to be tested,” Huff said. “I would like to see the capacity of 450 [people per site per day] exceeded.”
At the pop-up sites, including the one opening Thursday in Delaware County, anyone age 3 or older can be tested, regardless of whether they have symptoms.
The sites can test as many as 450 people a day on a first-come, first-serve basis, and an appointment is not necessary. Officials encourage patients to bring a photo ID and an insurance card if they have one. Test results should come back in two to seven days, officials said.
Three pop-up coronavirus testing sites to open in Camden
In response to a surge of new coronavirus cases, Camden County officials say they will start free pop-up testing for residents Wednesday at three schools located in neighborhoods hit particularly hard by the virus — no appointments needed.
Officials will also continue to operate two other mobile testing sites at the Cherry Hill campus of Camden County College on 1889 Route 70, and Cooper University Health Care campus at Broadway and Martin Luther King Boulevard in Camden. Appointments are needed at those sites and can be obtained by calling 856-968-7100 or emailing email@example.com.
In Camden, the new pop-up sites will operate at the following days and locations from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.:
Mondays at Veterans Memorial School, 800 N. 26th St. in Cramer Hill.
Wednesdays at Cooper Poynt School, 201 State St. in North Camden.
Thursdays at Dr. Charles Brimm Medical Arts High School, 1626 Copewood St. in Whitman Park.
The county also plans to launch a new testing location outside the city at the public works department at 2311 Egg Harbor Road in Lindenwold, but no date has been announced.
When it opens, residents will be able to schedule an appointment on the Camden County website, and the site will operate with the Rutgers University saliva test 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays.
‘It’s not a hoax’: Delaware officials plead with residents as hospitalizations top spring peak
There are more COVID-19 patients in Delaware hospitals now that at any point during the pandemic, a trend Gov. John Carney described as “very concerning” amid a spike in new cases.
There were 338 COVID-19 patients hospitalized in Delaware as of Tuesday afternoon, topping the 337 hospitalizations seen during the spring peak of the pandemic. Carney said the state’s hospital capacity is somewhere between 400 and 500 hospital beds.
“These hospitalization numbers are as real as real can get,” Carney said during a COVID-19 briefing Tuesday. “They’re there, they’re present the hospitals. It’s not a hoax. This is real, and it’s serious.”
Delaware is averaging more than 730 new cases a day, an 81% jump compared to two weeks ago, when the state was averaging just more tha 400 new cases a day. Carney warned that unless the state can get the spike in new cases under control, hospitals will continue to fill and more Delawareans will lose their lives to the virus.
“We all need to really lean into wearing masks, keep social distancing and staying at home, and reduce the number of trips that we take,” Carney said.
For the second time, Mayor Jim Kenney is quarantining at home after having been exposed to someone infected with the coronavirus.
“Today I’m speaking you from home because I’m again in quarantine after being exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19,” Kenney said Tuesday at a virtual news conference. “You may recall I also quarantined back in mid-September for two weeks. I’m free of any symptoms, and I’m planning to get tested soon.”
Kenney said he wanted to talk publicly about his quarantine to remind city residents that the virus is still spreading in Philadelphia and to encourage them to remain vigilant. The mayor said he plans to follow the new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for quarantining, by self-isolating for at least 10 days, or for seven days if he tests negative about a week after the exposure.
Kenney declined to provide any details about his exposure, including whether it occurred while on the job or in his personal life, saying that he wanted to protect the privacy of the person who tested positive.
Philly blames Thanksgiving gatherings for COVID-19 spike as winter holidays loom
Philadelphia is experiencing a dangerous spike in new coronavirus cases “likely caused by social gatherings that happened over Thanksgiving on top of already high case counts,” Public Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said Tuesday.
“We have more holidays coming up,” Farley said in a virtual news conference. “We can’t afford to have more case spikes like this Thanksgiving.”
The city on Tuesday reported 1,408 newly confirmed cases, for a total of 75,458 since the pandemic began. During the week that ended Saturday, the city reported about 910 new cases per day, with a positive rate of 12.7%.
That was up from 820 cases per day the previous week, when there was a 10.6% positivity rate. Cases were decreasing previously. The increase follows the expected timeline for a spike after the virus’ incubation period.
About 160 nursing homes residents have tested positive in each week of last two weeks, Farley said, up from about 10 per week in September but well below the rate of spread in nursing homes during the spring spike. Fifty nursing home residents have been moved to the city’s COVID-19 relief unit to prevent further spread in the facilities they were living in.
The city on Tuesday also reported 52 newly confirmed COVID-19 deaths among city residents, for a total of 2,107 since the pandemic began.
Farley noted that Philadelphia had recently crossed several grim milestones just nine months into the pandemic, with 2,000 city residents dead, 10,000 hospitalized, and 75,000 having been infected.
Although a limited number of vaccine doses may be available soon, he said, the city is a long way from being done with the pandemic.
“This epidemic has touched us all,” he said. “Most people in Philadelphia are still susceptible to this virus.”
Philly could start offering the COVID-19 vaccine next week, Farley says
Vaccine doses could begin coming to Philadelphia hospitals and nursing homes as soon as next week, but distribution plans beyond health care workers remain vague.
Farley said the city expects to receive a limited supply of doses this year. The priority now, he said, is to vaccinate health care workers with regular exposure to patients with COVID-19.
People who are particularly vulnerable to the virus due to age or health conditions should not expect to have access to the vaccine this year, said Thomas Farley, the city’s health commissioner.
If Pfizer’s vaccine is authorized but the Food and Drug administration, doses could begin distribution next week. The federal agency has already said the vaccine meets its safety standards and confirmed it is 95% effective.
The FDA is expected to decide whether to authorize another vaccine from Moderna next week, and doses of that vaccine could be available the week after that.
Health officials in the city have estimated as many as 125,000 people could qualify for vaccination in the first phase of vaccine distribution — such as workers in hospitals and nursing homes.
The distribution of vaccine doses will go from the manufacturer to a contracted distributor at the direction of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, he said. Those doses will be delivered to the state, and to the Philadelphia health department directly. Pennsylvania’s large cities will be receiving doses without the state acting as middle man, Farley said.
The city will store vaccine doses in its own freezers and at units in some of the city hospitals, he said. The Pfizer vaccine must be stored long-term in ultracold freezers at a temperature of minus 80 degrees Celsius. Farley anticipated storage would not be an issue.
Hospitals and nursing home staff will get vaccinated through their work places. Meanwhile, the city health department is still crafting a plan for distribution to everyone else. After health care workers, next in line for the vaccine would be workers and residents in congregant settings, such as incarceration facilities, Farley said.
“Everyone, in the meantime, it’s safer at home,” Farley said.
New Jersey now averaging more than 5,000 new cases a day
New Jersey reported 5,820 new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday and is now averaging more than 5,100 new cases a day over the past seven days, according to an Inquirer analysis. Overall, 377,055 New Jersey residents have tested positive for COVID-19.
A total of 3,481 coronavirus patients were hospitalized as of Tuesday afternoon, a 29% increase from 2,693 hospitalizations two weeks ago. It’s the highest number of hospitalized patients since mid-May, but still below pandemic highs set during the spring.
At least 15,590 New Jersey residents have now died after contracting the coronavirus, with 90 new deaths reported on Tuesday.
“I know that we can win this fight together,” Gov. Phil Murphy wrote on Twitter. “Mask up. Social distance. Wash your hands. Use common sense.”
Pennsylvania reports more than 10,000 new cases, 169 additional deaths
Pennsylvania added more than 10,000 new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday as the commonwealth begins to see the impact from family gatherings on Thanksgiving.
The Department of Health reported 10,170 new cases, and Pennsylvania is now averaging 9,925 new cases a day over the past seven days, according to an Inquirer analysis. During the spring peak, Pennsylvania’s seven-day average never topped 1,700 new cases per day.
“We’ve been expecting an upsurge. I think we’ve been surprised the last few days by the rate of increase we’ve seen,” Wolf said. “If that continues, that’s going to call for one set of actions. If the data changes, we might have a different set of decisions to make.”
Overall, 436,614 Pennsylvania residents have tested positive for coronavirus since the start of the pandemic.
A total of 5,421 COVID-19 patients were hospitalized as of Monday night, with 1,115 patients in intensive care units and 614 on ventilators. There were 671 ICU beds available across the commonwealth, according to the Department of Health’s COVID-19 dashboard.
At least 11,542 Pennsylvania residents have now died after contracting the coronavirus, with 169 new deaths reported on Tuesday. Of those, 7,447 (64%) were residents at nursing homes or personal care facilities.
New results on a possible COVID-19 vaccine from Oxford University and AstraZeneca suggest it is safe and about 70% effective, but questions remain about how well it may help protect those over 55 — a key concern for a vaccine that health officials hope to rely on around the world because of its low cost, availability and ease of use.
Still, experts say the vaccine seems likely to be approved, despite some confusion in the results and lower levels of protection than what other vaccine candidates have shown.
“What we can see looks reasonable, but it’s a bit more complicated than what we’ve seen so far,” said Dr. Buddy Creech, a Vanderbilt University researcher helping to test two other vaccines. “If this had been the first report out, the field would have still been excited to have a vaccine.”
The American Gaming Association says casinos nationwide recovered 81 percent of their revenue from a year ago, and earned $9 billion overall in 2020′s third quarter. Its COVID-19 casino tracker counts 880 casinos currently open and 116 closed, including Philadelphia’s Rivers Casino.
In Atlantic City, where casinos were closed altogether for nearly four months, fortunes have varied. Borgata reopened nearly a month after other casinos in July, when Murphy initially prohibited indoor dining. Last month, it announced it was laying off 73 workers and reducing the hours of 349 others, in light of Murphy’s 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. prohibitions. Its third quarter gross operating profits dropped 97% from last year.
Others, like Ocean Casino Resort, saw operating profits more than double compared to last year, no doubt helped by the Borgata sitting out most of July.
Hard Rock has stayed steady near the top of the pack, grossing $28.8 million in October, second to Borgata at $41.2 million. But Lupo sees massive missed opportunities (alcohol-free New Year’s Eve countdown anyone?), especially for a business that typically peaks between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m.
“It’s going to be a long, slow winter,” Lupo said. “And there are going to be less people here and less people working.”
The pandemic economy has taken a severe toll on casino workers, especially tipped workers like cocktail servers and bartenders, says Bob McDevitt, head of Unite Here’s Local 54, which, pre-COVID-19 had 10,000 employed workers in Atlantic City and now has about 7,000.
Overall, Atlantic City casinos reported employing about 22,000 people in October, down 17 percent from 2019.
No butter sculpture at this year’s virtual Pennsylvania Farm Show
While the 2021 Pennsylvania Farm Show will be virtual, it will skip one of its most beloved features due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Department of Agriculture announced Tuesday morning that the annual butter sculpture, a highlight of the show, has been canceled as cases and hospitalizations continue to surge across the commonwealth.
“While we are heartbroken to have to cancel popular features of our annual Farm Show, we simply cannot afford to compromise the health and safety of our staff, the sculptors who would have to travel to Harrisburg, and those involved in recording and broadcasting virtual events,” Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding said in a statement.
The virtual Pennsylvania Farm Show, with the theme of “cultivating tomorrow,” is scheduled to take place between Jan. 9 and Jan. 16. Redding said the online event will feature video tours and conversations that invite Pennsylvanians “to encounter agriculture for the first time or to see it from a whole new perspective from the safety of their homes.”
Philadelphia and Delaware to hold coronavirus briefings Tuesday
Officials in Philadelphia and Delaware will offer coronavirus updates on Tuesday. Here’s a schedule of how to watch and stream:
Philadelphia, 1 p.m.: Mayor Jim Kenney and Health Commissioner Thomas Farley, live-streamed via the Department of Public Health’s Twitter (@PHLPublicHealth) and Facebook accounts, and broadcast on PHLGovTV (Comcast channels 64 and 1164, and Verizon channels 40 and 41).
FDA review confirms safety and efficacy of Pfizer coronavirus vaccine
A two-shot coronavirus vaccine developed by Pfizer and German firm BioNTech appears to be on the cusp of regulatory clearance, after a 53-page review published Tuesday confirmed that the vaccine appears to meet the standard for emergency use authorization.
Career scientists at the Food and Drug Administration undertook their own thorough analysis of the data over the last two weeks and confirmed Pfizer’s assessment that the vaccine regimen was 95 percent effective at preventing disease in large clinical trial and had tolerable short-term side effects, including sore arms, fatigue, headaches, muscle pain and chills that typically resolved within one to two days.
The review also found evidence that the vaccine, which is given in two doses, three weeks apart, began to protect people after the first dose.
On Thursday, a group of advisers to the FDA will meet for a full-day public meeting to discuss the data and make recommendations on whether the vaccine merits authorization for immediate use. A decision, informed but not dictated by that debate, is expected to come within days of the meeting. The first doses are expected to be shipped within hours, with a target of 6.4 million doses distributed in the first week.
COVID-19 hospitalizations spike in Pa. as Wolf issues dire warning
Citing last week’s “alarming” coronavirus case increases and swiftly rising hospitalizations, Gov. Tom Wolf delivered a grim plea to Pennsylvanians on Monday, warning that hospitals are straining and could soon crack — but he stopped short of imposing any new mitigation measures.
“We’re still looking at things we can do,” Wolf said, after a briefing in which he said people could end up being denied hospital care if case trends continue and begged residents to help exhausted health-care workers by following pandemic guidelines. “If we need to do more we will, and we’ll be making that decision very shortly.”
Since Dec. 1, nearly 65,000 people in Pennsylvania have been diagnosed with new cases of the coronavirus. If the virus’ spread does not slow, hospitals will be overwhelmed, Wolf said.
Pennsylvania reported 6,330 new cases of the virus, the most ever reported on a Monday, when numbers are usually lower because of the weekend. The state also recorded 42 deaths.
The state Department of Health reported 5,421 coronavirus hospitalizations by Monday evening, an increase of 2,000 patients over the last two weeks. Wolf said hospitals were “running low” on ICU beds, particularly in the northern part of the state.
Cases surge in New Jersey as Delaware nears pandemic high number of hospitalizations
In New Jersey, where Sunday saw a record high of more than 6,000 new cases, the state’s health leaders, like national officials, said the full brunt of any Thanksgiving surge would be yet to come.
The state reported 3,573 new cases and 17 deaths Monday, and is now averaging more than 4,900 new infections a day over the past seven days, according to an Inquirer analysis. Since Dec. 1, more than 30,000 people in New Jersey have tested positive for the virus.
Gov. Phil Murphy estimated that the state will receive between 300,000 and 500,000 doses of a coronavirus vaccine by the end of the month. The first doses will go to health-care workers and residents of long-term care facilities, Murphy said, but within a matter of weeks the vaccine will be in more hospitals and pharmacies. Large-scale regional distribution sites could be up and running by January, he said.
In Delaware, 322 residents were hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Monday night, just a handful short of the state’s pandemic peak of 337 set during the spring. The state also reported 800 new cases Monday, the second-highest single-day total on record.
Trump administration passed up chance to lock in more Pfizer vaccine doses
The Trump administration opted last summer not to lock in a chance to buy millions of additional doses of one of the leading coronavirus vaccine contenders, a decision that could delay the delivery of a second batch of doses until manufacturer Pfizer fulfills other international contracts.
The revelation, confirmed Monday by people familiar with the matter, came a day before President Donald Trump aimed to take credit for the speedy development of forthcoming coronavirus vaccines at a White House summit Tuesday.
Pfizer’s vaccine is expected to be endorsed by a panel of Food and Drug Administration advisers as soon as this week, with delivery of 100 million doses — enough for 50 million Americans — expected in coming months.
Under its contract with Pfizer, the Trump administration committed to buy an initial 100 million doses, with an option to purchase as many as five times more.
This summer, the White House opted not to lock in an additional 100 million doses for delivery in the second quarter of 2021, according to people who spoke about the matter on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss it publicly.
NBA star Karl-Anthony Towns says he has lost 7 family members to COVID-19
On Thursday, Minnesota Timberwolves star Karl-Anthony Towns learned that his uncle had died of COVID-19. Towns, who is preparing to start his sixth season in the NBA, said the death was the seventh in his family since the start of the pandemic.
“I’ve been through a lot, obviously starting out with my mom,” Towns told reporters on Friday.
His mother, Jacqueline Towns, died of complications of the novel coronavirus in April. Her death devastated Towns, who posted an emotional plea on Instagram a short time later urging people to “take every precaution” to prevent the spread of the virus.
“I can’t sleep so I’m just trying to do this video,” he said at the start of the nearly six-minute appeal. “I think it’s important that everybody understands the severity of what’s going on right now with the coronavirus.”
On Friday, after his uncle died, Towns revealed that his family has lost five other members to COVID-19. His father also tested positive for the virus and was briefly hospitalized in April, but he recovered.
“I’ve seen a lot of coffins in the last seven months, eight months,” Towns said Friday. “But I have a lot of people who have — in my family and my mom’s family — who have gotten COVID. I’m the one looking for answers still, trying to find how to keep them healthy.”
Tuesday morning roundup: First member of the public receives COVID-19 vaccine
A retired British shop clerk received the first shot in the country’s COVID-19 vaccination program Tuesday, signaling the start of a global immunization effort intended to offer a route out of a pandemic that has killed 1.5 million. “My advice to anyone offered the vaccine is to take it — if I can have it at 90, then you can have it too,” said Margaret Keenan.
Police with guns drawn raided the Florida home of Rebekah Jones, the data scientist who said she was fired by the state health department for refusing requests she felt were unethical, according to the Washington Post.