Winter storm update: Montco urges residents to stay home; no vaccine shipment disruption expected

A man wearing a mask walks through a mid-afternoon snow squall in downtown Pittsburgh on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

A man wearing a mask walks through a mid-afternoon snow squall in downtown Pittsburgh on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

As Wednesday’s forecasted storm approaches, both state and local officials have urged residents to be cautious and stay at home. Snow and heavy precipitation may cause widespread power outages, followed by a significant drop in temperatures later this week; the forecast comes amid the shipment of thousands of doses of the new COVID-19 Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, prompting worries about potential vaccination delay.

We should start seeing the first flakes in the Philadelphia suburbs around 1 p.m. Wednesday. The peak is expected Wednesday evening through early Thursday. Then it tapers off Thursday morning with snow showers as heavy wind gusts could cause power outages.

Montgomery County officials announce storm preparation, resources

Montgomery County officials announced today that they are prepared for the forecasted winter storm on Wednesday. They also urged all county residents to stay at home, and avoid travel unless absolutely necessary.

“Our Roads and Bridges workers are ready to treat County roads and help keep them passable for emergency responders, healthcare staff, and other critical workers,” said Valerie Arkoosh, chair of the county board of commissioners, in a statement Tuesday. “Our crews are prepared to work around the clock throughout the duration of the storm.”

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The county maintains over 75 miles of County-administered roadway and 131 bridges, employing 14 county on-the-road drivers for snowplows and other equipment, and eight subcontracted road workers. The county is also equipped with two dump trucks with large plows, eleven other trucks fitted with plows and salt spreaders, and stockpiles of salt at several facilities throughout the area; over the past five winters, Montgomery County used an average of 2,000 tons of road salt annually.

Travel should be avoided during severe winter weather conditions since roadways will not be free of snow while precipitation falls tomorrow. Montgomery County officials encourage motorists to plan for additional travel time and drive at slower speeds if necessary, as well as to turn on headlights, increase following distances, and use defroster and windshield wipers, among other safety precautions.

Additional storm updates from the county can be found online or via ReadyMontco, the county’s source for official weather and emergency alerts administered by the Montgomery County Department of Public Safety.

No plans to delay COVID-19 vaccine shipments due to storm

The stormy forecast is particularly ill-timed, as shipments of the recently authorized COVID-19 Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine make their way to hospitals across the region. Philadelphia hospitals will receive 13,650 doses of the vaccine directly, while hospitals in the 66 counties outside of Philadelphia are set to receive 97,500 doses and begin vaccinations as early as this week.

But state officials said Tuesday afternoon that they haven’t yet made changes to the statewide vaccine shipment plan in response to the forecast, although they are open to doing so if the weather requires.

“It is our understanding that… all the shippers have a contingency plan in place for severe weather, so they have the ability to hold the shipment if it’s unsafe to travel,” Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency director Randy Padfield stated on Tuesday, adding that the shipments could also be rerouted if necessary. “There are no changes to the plan right now.”

Major Bruce Williams, speaking on behalf of the Bureau of Patrol for the Pennsylvania State Police, said there are three main things the public can do to aid first responders during a snowstorm. First, stay at home and avoid all unnecessary travel. Second, if travel is necessary, slow down and increase following distance when driving. And third, use 911 to report police, fire, or medical emergencies; the state police will have a representative working to direct resources and help during the storm.

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“Less people on the roads allows us to keep critical movement on the roads, not just for the vaccine, but also for our emergency responders, medical professionals, and those needing these services,” said PennDOT Dep. Sec. for Highway Administration Melissa Batula, adding, “We will do everything in our power before and during this storm to ensure that vaccine deliveries get where they need to go.”

A small number of vaccine deliveries have already been made on Monday and Tuesday, Padfield said, with additional deliveries slated for Wednesday and Thursday.

Philadelphia officials provide weather-related updates, service and site closures

In Philadelphia, the winter storm forecast predicts 3-6 inches of snow. But temperatures near freezing this week could slow down snowmelt, and cause additional travel or service delays in the city, officials said Tuesday night. Residents should be mindful of heavy winds, fallen tree limbs, and possible power outages.

“The department anticipates initiating a salting operation Wednesday as the storm dictates on primary and secondary streets, bridges, and high elevations,” Philadelphia streets commissioner Carlton Williams said Tuesday evening, adding that workers have been treating roads since Tuesday morning and have over 50,000 tons of salt available.

As state and local officials suggested earlier today, city managing director Tumar Alexander said, the snowstorm “shouldn’t cause any delays on the transportation of the vaccine… if we experience any issues, we’ll work with the streets department and our other partners to help resolve it in a timely manner, but we do not anticipate that it’ll cause any delays in the vaccine shipment.”

SEPTA service changes will be announced tomorrow; Scott Sauer, the transportation authority’s assistant general manager, said most lines will operate as usual Wednesday morning and afternoon but will likely be affected starting Wednesday evening and continuing into Thursday. Philadelphia-area riders should check SEPTA updates before they leave home, and expect delays.

The city school district’s buildings, including internet access centers, will be closing Wednesday afternoon to allow for snow removal on district property. Parent and family tech centers will be closed all day as well, although tech support will still be made available via phone.

Finally, the city has issued a Code Blue alert, noting below-freezing temperatures and opening all emergency housing to homeless people starting Tuesday night. Shelters will remain open, with no ID, drug test, or proof of citizenship required for entry, director of Homeless Services Liz Hersh said Tuesday. The Homeless Services outreach coordination center will be available to deploy teams throughout the day, and can be reached at 215-232-1984.

NBC10 contributed reporting.

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