Coronavirus update: N.J. governor orders, ‘Stay at home;’ Pa. reports 2nd death; Del. closes beaches

Jamie Huot, a Philadelphia Medical Reserve Corps volunteer and nurse, walks to the swabbing tent before the city's coronavirus testing site opened next to Citizens Bank Park in South Philadelphia on Friday, March 20, 2020. (The Philadelphia Inquirer)

Jamie Huot, a Philadelphia Medical Reserve Corps volunteer and nurse, walks to the swabbing tent before the city's coronavirus testing site opened next to Citizens Bank Park in South Philadelphia on Friday, March 20, 2020. (The Philadelphia Inquirer)

Updated 8:16 p.m.

To date, there are 371 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Pennsylvania, 1,327 in New Jersey, and 45 cases in Delaware. Philadelphia has 85 cases.

‘Stay at home,’ New Jersey orders state residents

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy announced Saturday that he had signed an executive order mandating nearly all state residents must stay at home.

“All gatherings are canceled until further notice,” Murphy said. “No weddings, in-person services, or even parties.”

The order came as state officials announced 442 new COVID-19 cases, increasing the total nearly 50%, to 1,327. Five more people have died of the disease, bringing the total death count to 16.

All nonessential retail businesses must close their doors to the public indefinitely, beginning at 9 p.m. Saturday, Murphy said. The governor also signed a second executive order stating that these new regulations supersede all other municipal COVID-19 regulations in the state.

“We’ve got to run the state with one set of rules,” he said.

Businesses allowed to remain open include supermarkets, pharmacies, and medical marijuana dispensaries. Restaurants, liquor stores, and bars are allowed to remain open if they provide takeout. Residents are allowed to go outside to take a walk or exercise, Murphy said, but the order requires they maintain a “social distance” of at least six feet from other people. 

Murphy said law enforcement across New Jersey is prepared to charge people who willfully disregard the rules.

Officials also rolled out a new website — covid19.nj.gov — where New Jerseyians can find up-to-date information on the outbreak.

Murphy said he expects infection numbers to grow rapidly as testing capacity increases.

“The numbers will continue to grow significantly … many many thousands,” he said.

Philly update

On Saturday, Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley announced the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in a city nursing home.

“We’ve been trying very hard to avoid this, we know that nursing home residents are particularly vulnerable,” Farley said, adding that he expected more nursing home cases to come in the future. To try to prevent that, he said, Department of Public Health workers would be dispatched to the nursing home, which he declined to identify, to help protect other residents.

He also said the department will now more firmly stress its visitation guidance: no visitors to nursing homes, and no visitors to hospitals. He recommended that those who want to stay in contact with their loved ones in nursing homes do so virtually.

Since 1 p.m. Friday, there have been eight new cases of COVID-19 reported, bringing the total in Philadelphia to 85. Farley cautioned that while that number was lower than the day before, all labs don’t send data over the weekend.

Among the 85, five are under age 20, 43 are between ages 20 and 39, 20 are between 40 and 59, 17 are over 60. Twelve are hospitalized, and 16  are known to be health care workers.

On its opening day Friday, the city’s testing site at the stadium complex in South Philadelphia tested 91 people. Fifty of them were known to be health care workers, and that group is the highest priority for the test site. Managing Director Brian Abernathy called it a “flawless and important launch.”

Sixty of the patients were Philadelphia residents, and the rest were from surrounding counties. There are 20 other such testing sites run by hospital systems. Farley said those sites collected a total of 1,700 samples on Friday.

All sites, city or otherwise, have eligibility criteria due to a nationwide shortage of testing materials and personal protective equipment. Farley put out a call to any businesses that might use gowns, goggles, masks or gloves and have some in storage that they could offer for use by health care workers exposed to sick patients on the front lines. Anyone with PPE to spare should email eoc.logsitics@phila.gov. He said the city is exploring possibilities for local manufacturing of PPE.

In the meantime, only people with a dry cough and a fever should get tested to save the available equipment for those who need it most.

“If you don’t have symptoms, don’t get a test,” Farley reiterated.  “If you have symptoms but you are otherwise young and healthy, don’t get a test.” He reminded residents that if they do need a test, the first place to call is your doctor, or any health system where you’ve gotten care in the past.

Abernathy clarified a new Philly-focused timeline for construction projects in progress to halt. All construction must stop by next Friday, March 27, at 5 p.m. The extension beyond the state’s directed timeline, he said, is in the interest of public safety and to prevent property damage. Project managers must remove or fasten any items that could get loose, secure property to prevent trespassing, and complete any work to protect the structural integrity of buildings under construction.

He said both emergency systems repair and routine maintenance and repair will be exempted under the order, the details of which can be found at phila.gov/li

Abernathy reiterated the administration’s call for social distancing and suggested that the existing guidance is, in fact, no different than the so-called “shelter in place” orders being issued in other large cities, such as San Francisco, Chicago.

“If you want to call it shelter in place, call it shelter in place,”  Abernathy said, adding that people are going to need to get essential food and health care to live their lives no matter what the government orders.

Mayor Jim Kenney added that these measures won’t work to stop the spread of the virus without everyone’s cooperation.

“That large group of kids playing on the playground, those kids all have parents,” he said. “I think it’s incumbent on parents to act like parents and to make sure their kids stay home.”

Kenney also announced that he has signed a bipartisan letter with the U.S. Council of Mayors requesting federal aid from Congress to cities with substantial outbreaks.

“Direct federal aid will allow us to maintain city services in the fallout of this crisis,” he said.

Next week, the City Council’s appropriations committee will host a virtual hearing to vote on the Kenney administration’s request for an emergency budget transfer of $85 million to help the city mitigate and fight the coronavirus outbreak. Public comment will be made available through Zoom video meetings

Philadelphia, collar-county officials push state to move primary election

Officials across Southeastern Pennsylvania have sent a letter to Gov. Tom Wolf asking him to move the date of the state’s primary election from April 28 to June 23.

“Because of this public health emergency, we are facing poll worker shortages and the closure of polling places located in senior living communities and senior centers. Holding the primary on its currently scheduled date will pose a material risk to the health of our poll workers and our voters,” the letter states.

The letter was signed by Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, City Commissioners Chair Lisa M. Deely, and officials in Chester, Bucks, Delaware, and Montgomery counties.

The officials write that they cannot  train poll workers — who tend to be older — for the foreseeable future because of the social distancing required by the coronavirus outbreak. Moving the primary back to late June would give them enough time to train workers, as well as find new polling locations if need be.

Governor Wolf has said he is considering pushing to move the primary date back, but that would take buy-in from the state legislature; it’s not clear that would ever happen.

Maryland, which also had scheduled its primary for April  28, has moved it back to June 2 due to coronavirus concerns.

Pennsylvania reports a death in Allegheny County

State health officials announced Saturday that a second Pennsylvania resident had died of COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus.

The death was of an adult resident of Allegheny County who had been hospitalized. No other details were provided.

Pennsylvania reported 103 new cases of COVID-19 Saturday, bringing the statewide total to 371.  (The state and Philadelphia report on different schedules, which can result in apparent discrepancies in the numbers. Philadelphia is separately reporting 85 cases.)

Approximately 40 of those patients have been hospitalized, according to state Health Secretary Rachel Levine.

“Each day, we tell you how important it is to stay calm, stay home, and stay safe,” Levine said. “This is more than just a catchy phrase. This virus is deadly.”

Pennsylvania’s rate of coronavirus testing has been increasing, but Levine said the new numbers indicate that the virus is spreading rapidly.

“The number of new cases is increasing at an exponential rate. We are doubling the number of new cases every two or more days,” she said.  “It’s not just increased testing.”

The largest demographic of COVID-19 patients are middle-aged adults, followed by seniors and young adults, respectively.

Levine said the state was reaching out to manufacturing companies that might use N-95 protective masks to request that they share their stockpiles with health workers. Communities across the country are scrambling to stockpile adequate safety gear before an expected surge in coronavirus-caused hospitalizations.

“We are  [also] reaching out to manufacturers in other countries to see if we can get more stores of those masks,” Levine said.

California, Illinois, and New York have recently moved to require people to stay at home as much as possible to slow the spread of the coronavirus, and there has been speculation that Gov. Tom Wolf will issue a “shelter in place” order. When asked about the possibility of that, Levine said it’s being discussed, but that “these decisions have not been made yet.”

Delaware orders beaches closed

Delaware Gov. John Carney ordered beaches closed Saturday, as part of that state’s effort to slow the spread of coronavirus.

The public is banned from accessing the beaches except to exercise or walk their dogs.

The order goes into effect at 5 p.m. Saturday and runs until mid-May, “or until the public health threat of COVID-19 has been eliminated,” a press release states.

Delaware has diagnosed 45 cases of the disease since March 11. 

Pennsylvania suspends some nursing license requirements to fight coronavirus

State officials have temporarily suspended license expiration dates, waived some fees, and lifted a number of other requirements for nurses as part of preparations to fight the coronavirus outbreak.

The changes will free up more than 14,000 nurse practitioners “to be more flexible in meeting public-health needs in the weeks to come,” Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar said in a release.

“We are taking this action to ensure that Pennsylvania has plenty of nurses available to treat patients and that these nurses do not have to worry about renewing their licenses while responding to COVID-19.”

State officials are continuing to look for health care worker regulations that can be suspended to give responders maximum flexibility in responding to the coronavirus outbreak.

Philadelphia closes stretch of MLK Drive to aid in ‘social distancing.’

Martin Luther King Drive is now closed indefinitely to vehicular traffic from the East Falls Bridge to Eakins Oval.

City officials made the decision Friday night as part of an effort to make it easier for Philadelphians to keep their distance from one another — a requirement to slow the spread of the coronavirus outbreak.

“We recognize that physical activity is important to well-being, and under current restrictions are providing opportunities for park and trail use. We encourage residents to please maintain social distancing in the course of outdoors recreation,” a press release on the subject reads.

Public health experts say parks and other outdoor spaces are an ideal recreation activity during the coronavirus outbreak,  as it is easy to maintain the recommended six feet of distance from other people. 

Wolf delays enforcement of business shutdown

The Wolf administration is delaying its plan to forcibly shut down Pennsylvania businesses not considered “life sustaining” in order to slow the spread of coronavirus.

Non-life-sustaining businesses were originally ordered closed Thursday evening, but due to a “high volume of waiver requests” the administration is delaying that order until Monday morning, according to a release from the state.

Gov. Wolf expanded the list of “life-sustaining” businesses Friday night to include forestry, accounting, manufacturing, and laundromats, while beer, wine and liquor stores have been taken off the list, with an exception for beer distributors.

Al-Madinah Learning Center, a child care provider in South Philadelphia, was ordered closed by state officials Monday night. But the center was able to obtain a waiver to reopen to care for children of parents working in critical positions, such as nurses and grocery store clerks.

“The families were truly grateful,” said daycare director Aishah Holiday.

State officials will review each waiver request and respond “based on the guiding principle of balancing public safety while ensuring the continued delivery of critical infrastructure services and functions,” according to the release.

Businesses must remain closed until a decision is made on their requests.

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