The Lead

Health officials: Hospitals bracing for surge as Pa. logs 83 new COVID-19 cases; statewide total is now 268 cases

By: and - March 20, 2020 12:43 pm

Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine. Source: Pennsylvania Department of Health.

Officials at the Pennsylvania Department of Health reported 83 new cases of COVID-19 at midday on Friday, bringing the statewide total to 268 cases. The illness is now present in 26 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties.

Health Secretary Rachel Levine said state officials are looking at “every option” to add capacity to Pennsylvania’s hospital systems as they prepare for a surge of patients.

As medical professionals scrutinize staffing levels, equipment supplies and facility space, Pennsylvanians can also do their part to slow the spread of the highly contagious virus, Levine said.

“The one thing you can do to control the spread of the virus is to stay home and limit your interactions to your immediate family,” Levine said. “That is the only way… we can ensure that we don’t strain our healthcare system to the point that it breaks.

So far, approximately 26 of Pennsylvania’s COVID patients have required hospitalization since March 6, Levine said.

Levine called specifically on young adults to take the virus seriously, citing data from the federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention that show that 20 percent of all hospitalized COVID patients in the United States were between the age of 20 and 44.

“We are seriously concerned that individuals in the 20-44 age range are not heeding the message to stay home, and are creating an unnecessary risk to themselves and to others,” Levine said. “This could lead to a significant impact on our healthcare system.”

Statewide, there are 2,574 patients who have tested negative, and one death. With commercial labs being the primary testing option for most Pennsylvanians, data is not available on the total number of tests pending, the agency said in a statement.

Gov. Tom Wolf also addressed the press on a video livestream on Friday to defend his Thursday night decision to close businesses that his administration deemed “non-life sustaining” in the midst of the pandemic.

His order, which agencies including the Pennsylvania State Police will begin to enforce at 12:01 am Saturday, affects gyms, recreation centers, hair salons, movie theaters, general merchandise retailers, sporting venues and other enterprises.

Grocery stores, auto-repair shops, pharmacies, newspaper offices and hospitals are allowed to remain open. Restaurants must close their dining areas, but may continue offering take-out services.

Businesses that don’t comply with the order could face fines and criminal prosecution.

Wolf said Friday that his administration did not make the decision lightly, and announced a $60 million low-interest loan program for businesses that would be pummeled by the pandemic. 

The severe order, which is already facing legal challenges and criticism from business owners, came days after Wolf asked businesses to voluntarily close their doors to prevent person-to–person spread of the virus.

But on Friday, Wolf also said that the rapidly accelerating rate of newly confirmed cases shows that more drastic action was necessary to slow the spread of the virus throughout communities.

“The exponential rate of growth… is cause for concern, and an indication that what we were doing was not quite enough,” Wolf said Friday.

A Luzerne County senator on Friday announced that businesses can appeal for a waiver to keep operating under Wolf’s order.

Businesses that believe they’re considered “life-sustaining” can apply for a waiver at [email protected], and business owners can also ask questions about whether they need to close by emailing [email protected], according to statements issued by a major business trade group and the office of state Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne.

Capital-Star Staff Reporter Elizabeth Hardison contributed data analysis and reporting to this story. 

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John L. Micek
John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.

Elizabeth Hardison
Elizabeth Hardison

Elizabeth Hardison covered education policy, election administration, criminal justice and legislative news for the Capital-Star from Jan. 2019-April 2021. You can find her on Twitter @ElizHardison.