Pennsylvania Reinforces Mask, Travel Restrictions as Coronavirus Spreads

Manager Yllka Murati waits for a delivery driver to pick up takeout orders at the Penrose Diner, Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020, in south Philadelphia. Philadelphia plans to prohibit indoor dining at restaurants, shutter casinos, gyms, museums and libraries, pause in-person instruction at colleges and high schools, and reduce occupancy at stores and religious institutions, the health commissioner, Dr. Thomas Farley, said at a news conference Monday as the city battles a resurgence of the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

By Patrick Abdalla

November 17, 2020

The state has seen a rapid rise in cases and hospitalizations in the last two months.

Pennsylvania could run out of intensive care beds by December and the number of deaths could double by March, according to predictive models of the spread of the coronavirus, said Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine on Tuesday.

While Levine repeated her assertion that the state will not return to its red, yellow, and green phases from the spring, she did announce new mask regulations and restrictions targeted to travelers and colleges. And she did not rule out the possibility that the virus’ spread could lead to more restrictions.

She pointed out that the states that got colder first, in the mountain west and north, are seeing spikes that are straining their health systems. 

“We don’t want to look in a month like Wisconsin looks now,” she said. “Which is why we’re taking these measures now and we might take other measures in the future if we have to.”

As of last week, less than 10% of Wisconsin’s ICU beds were available. 

Levine said Pennsylvania hospitals and medical facilities should start planning for how they will work together, and be prepared to reschedule or reduce the number elective procedures they are planning. 

“We want everyone to work together and if we all work together to be able to withstand this surge then we won’t have to, from the state’s point of view, do anything that’s widespread like canceling electives,” she said. “Will some hospitals have to moderate their elective procedures to conserve beds? They might.”

Levine and Gov. Tom Wolf hope the state’s new restrictions and preparations will keep those issues from arising.

New Guidance for Wearing Masks

State health officials are asking residents to wear masks when:

  • they are indoors and not at home,
  • they are outdoors and within 6 feet of anyone who doesn’t live with them, and when
  • they are at home and have a visitor in their home.

New Guidance for Out-of-State Travel

Travelers to the state are expected to provide a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours or quarantine for 14 days. Pennsylvanians who leave the state must follow the same guidelines when they return. The order does not cover people who commute to and from work across state lines. 

“We don’t want people to travel, and other states are saying the same thing,” Levine said. “I understand that that’s a tremendous sacrifice for Pennsylvanians. … But this is the biggest health crisis that we have seen in 102 years.”

New Guidance for Colleges and Universities

Colleges and universities should implement a plan for testing students when they return from the holiday breaks. They should also have adequate space for quarantine and isolation for students. 

Public Schools

Levine deviated a bit from prior rhetoric that there wouldn’t be a statewide school shutdown.

The state has recommended that districts inside counties with “substantial” spread go virtual. Many districts in those counties have refused to do so.

“We’re going to be watching this really closely, we’re going to be watching what the schools are doing,” she said. “We’re going to be watching the numbers really closely and we might come with further contingency plans. But right now we are sticking with our previous recommendations to school districts, school boards and superintendents.” 

The Numbers

The virus has exploded in Pennsylvania this month, with more confirmed cases in November’s first 16 days than any whole month since the pandemic reached the US. The state surpassed its record for most cases every day from Nov. 2-6, when it reached 3,875 cases. 

On Nov. 9, it passed the 4,000 mark in one day for the first time. Just two days later it passed 5,000 in a single day. It’s averaged more than 5,000 every day since.

More than 2,700 Pennsylvanians are currently hospitalized with coronavirus-related illness. That’s still slightly below the high of 3,000 a day during the spring, but a dramatic increase since September when just 422 were hospitalized.

Levine said that medical personnel and facilities are better equipped to handle the virus today than they were in the spring because they know what procedures and therapeutics work. 

“We’re hoping that we don’t see some of the numbers that we saw in the spring,” she said.

Officials Stress the Importance of Individual Responsibility

Levine didn’t offer much information on how the state will enforce the regulations, however.

“We’re not looking to take people to court,” Levine said, “but I do have that authority.“

Levine repeated her consistent assertion that how individual Pennsylvanians behave will dictate the number of coronavirus cases, and therefore the state’s response.

“How Pennsylvania does, in terms of this pandemic and in terms of whether we follow the (Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation) model’s projections or whether we don’t, is going to actually come down to the actions of every single Pennsylvanian,” she said.


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