Pa. coronavirus update: Philly officials urge caution after post-Thanksgiving spike

If approved, a vaccine could be available in weeks, Philadelphia public health officials said. Still, masking and distancing are critical to stopping the spread.

Registered nurse Chrissie Burkhiser puts on personal protective equipment as she prepares to treat a COVID-19 patient in the in the emergency room

Registered nurse Chrissie Burkhiser puts on personal protective equipment as she prepares to treat a COVID-19 patient in the in the emergency room at Scotland County Hospital Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2020, in Memphis, Mo. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Updated 5:33 p.m.

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Pennsylvania reported 10,170 new cases of COVID-19 Tuesday, for a statewide case total of 436,614 since the start of the pandemic. The commonwealth also reported 169 new deaths Tuesday, for a total of 11,542 since the start of the pandemic.

On Tuesday, Philadelphia reported 1,408 additional confirmed cases, for a total of 75,458 since the beginning of the pandemic. The city’s Department of Public Health confirmed 52 additional fatalities, which brings the total number of deaths attributable to the virus in Philadelphia to 2,107.

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Philly officials note post-Thanksgiving spike, urge caution

During a citywide COVID-19 update Tuesday, Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley pointed to rising coronavirus case numbers, and cited Thanksgiving gatherings as the primary culprit.

“The pattern we’re seeing is clearly a decrease in the number of cases daily before Thanksgiving, followed by a sharp increase after Thanksgiving,” Farley said. Cases started to spike five days after the holiday, the typical length of the virus’s incubation period, and contact-tracing interviews indicated a high rate of exposure during social gatherings and celebrations.

Officials encouraged people to continue working from home, stay distanced, and wear masks around anyone who is not a household member. Testing, they reiterated, is not a replacement for masking and distance.

“If you test positive, you need to wear a mask and stay away from others,” Farley said. “If you test negative, you need to wear a mask and stay away from others.”

The city’s Safer at Home restrictions — which mean no indoor gatherings at home, in restaurants, or in gyms and other recreational settings — will remain in place until at least Jan. 1.

Philly could start vaccine distribution as early as next week

If the Pfizer vaccine is approved this week by the Food and Drug Administration, the city could begin distribution as early as next week, with the Moderna vaccine following shortly thereafter, Farley said Tuesday. The first doses would go to health care workers in hospital and nursing home settings, followed by essential and critical infrastructure workers and likely those at greatest risk for the virus.

Philadelphia officials say they’re fully prepared to store and distribute the vaccine, as well. Many large hospitals and universities in the city have ultra-cold freezers capable of holding thousands of doses of the vaccine.

“The vaccine doesn’t take up a lot of space … a tray of vaccines that has about a thousand doses, has been referred to as ‘the pizza box,’ to give you a sense of how big it is,” Farley said. “So storage is not a problem.”

How many doses will be made available for city residents in the weeks and months following? Officials aren’t yet sure.

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“It’s probably going to be in the tens of thousands, not in the hundreds of thousands, but how many tens of thousands, we don’t know,” Farley said. He added that the city plans to distribute the vaccine “as quickly as we get it.”

Pa. provides update on opioid crisis, resources

The opioid epidemic continues to rage in communities, in the commonwealth and throughout the country even as COVID-19 spreads, Ray Barishansky, Pennsylvania’s deputy health secretary of health preparedness and community protection, said at a Tuesday morning press briefing.

“We are dealing with a pandemic and an epidemic at the same time,” he said.

Anecdotally, counties across the state have noted an increase in 911 calls, emergency department visits, and deaths from opioid use, he said. The numbers indicate 12 Pennsylvanians die of an opioid overdose every day.

“This is the time to enhance our prevention and rescue strategies to make sure this trend does not continue,” Barishansky said.

He pointed residents to the National Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) confidential hotline at 1-800-662-4357, and added that an updated action plan will include targeting previous “hotspot” areas — including in Allegheny, Somerset, Blair, York, Adams and Centre counties — for support and naloxone supply.

Jennifer Smith, secretary of the state’s Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs, added that help was available for Pennsylvanians via clinicians, support staff, and other treatment providers that remain open and operational, as well as distanced in-person support groups and remote options.

Pa. continues PCR and antigen testing expansion

State Health Secretary Rachel Levine announced that beginning Thursday, Dec 10, regional drive-through and indoor walk-in testing clinics will take place in Delaware, Clinton, Greene, Warren and Wyoming counties.

The announcement marks the second week of a statewide pop-up testing initiative with AMI Expeditionary Healthcare meant to expand testing access to 61 counties in Pennsylvania over the next 11 weeks. Both initial AMI testing and the extension are funded by a federal ELC Enhancing Detection grant.

Officials expressed hope that increased testing in these counties will assist in determining the prevalence of the virus and informing policy moving forward. Concerning counties, identified as those with percent positives above 5 percent — a standard that currently includes every county in the state — can be found on the Early Warning Monitoring Dashboard.

The sites, which will offer both drive-in and walk-up options, use PCR [polymerase chain reaction] testing and do not require symptoms or an appointment.

State officials also announced the ninth round of COVID-19 antigen “rapid test” kits provided by the federal government to Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments-certified institutions in Carbon, Clarion, Lycoming, Northampton, Potter and York counties.

More than 1,000,000 of the antigen tests, which look for pieces of proteins that make up the SARS-CoV-2 virus and are less sensitive than PCR tests for detecting COVID-19 infections, have already been distributed to facilities in 41 counties. Those counties are listed on the Department of Health’s Coronavirus Symptoms & Testing webpage under the Antigen Tests subhead.

Montco reports cases, hospitalizations on the rise

Montgomery County officials released a new report Tuesday on COVID-19 test results and deaths, noting a continued rise in cases over the past week. Between Dec. 2 and Dec. 8, 3,427 additional people tested positive for coronavirus and 18 people died of COVID-19, bringing the countywide total to 24,420 cases and 894 deaths. One hundred three of the new cases and three deaths were in long-term care facilities.

“Hospitalizations due to COVID-19 continue to increase in Montgomery County,” Dr. Val Arkoosh, chair of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners, said in a statement Tuesday. “As a reminder, both hospitalizations and deaths lag behind cases, so we assume that we have not yet seen the peak in hospitalizations or deaths with this surge.” She urged Montco residents to work from home if they are able and avoid all nonessential trips and travel.

A full breakdown of all Montgomery County COVID-19 cases, along with maps, charts, and demographic information on cases, can be found on the county’s COVID-19 Data Hub.

State to continue contact tracing into holiday season

In addition to expanded testing access, contact tracing and case investigation efforts continue throughout the state, as well.

During the process, contact tracers reach out to state residents who have tested positive to educate and inform them about COVID-19, determine where spread is occurring, and provide resources for health care access or social service support, as well as reach out to close contacts of those who might have been exposed.

Not all cases are investigated; since contact tracing and staffing is limited, specific cases are prioritized based on demographic information such as age, school attendance, and whether a person lives in a long-term care facility.

“Last week alone, our contact tracing team monitored nearly 8,000 contacts,” Lindsey Mauldin, special assistant on contact tracing for the Department of Health, said in a virtual press briefing Tuesday. Despite a low response rate, Mauldin said she still believes that contact tracing is important for education purposes and support during the quarantine period.

Contact tracing numbers have dropped slightly over the holiday rush. Officials say they’re working to bring on new case investigators — the Health Department currently employs 230 — and to provide an online survey for those who test positive to take instead of receiving a call. Officials are also asking residents to download the COVID-19 PA mobile app, which is meant to alert users about their potential exposure to others who have tested positive for the virus.

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