Coronavirus: 1 month into pandemic, Pennsylvania still hasn’t reached peak

“This is going to be a very painful, very very painful two weeks,” President Donald Trump said during a recent news conference. “I want every American to be prepared for the hard days that lie ahead.”

Monday marks one month since the coronavirus pandemic began in Pennsylvania, and the worst is yet to come.

“This is going to be a very painful, very very painful two weeks,” President Donald Trump said during a recent news conference. “I want every American to be prepared for the hard days that lie ahead. We’re going through a very tough few weeks.”

Trump was speaking for the whole nation, but Pennsylvanians should also be prepared for a high volume of positive cases of COVID-19 and patients who need to be hospitalized, state health officials said.

“We are probably about one-third, or maybe 30 percent through this,” Pennsylvania Department of Health spokesman Nate Wardle said. “We have seen cases really start to rise, and we have also seen our deaths increase by more than 10 each day. We have also started to see a number of concerns at our nursing homes and long-term care facilities.”

As of noon Thursday, Pennsylvania had more than 7,000 positive cases, 730 hospitalizations and 90 deaths, according to state health data.

“We anticipate new cases and new hospitalizations to continue to increase for several weeks, and our hospitalizations will increase even after the positive cases start to moderate,” Wardle said.

Pennsylvania has about 40 percent of its 3,400 ICU beds available, and nearly 75 percent of its 2,000 ventilators available statewide. More ventilators are available in storage and more are being procured.

Gov. Tom Wolf on Monday said he’d like to have another 1,000 to 1,400 ventilators in the state.

“If the exponential rise continues without plateauing, it will have serious consequences for our hospitals and health system,” Wardle said. 

A Pennsylvania peak

So far, Pennsylvania hospitals have not been strained, he said.

But they will be in a couple weeks, according to a study from the University of Washington.

Pennsylvania will have more than 7,400 patients hospitalized, about 90 intensive care unit beds and need more than 900 life-saving ventilators on April 18, according to that study.

That same University of Washington study shows that deaths could peak at 79 per day in Pennsylvania by April 19 and that more than 2,000 people in the state could from the coronavirus by Aug. 4.

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But the University of Washington study, cited by Trump, drew criticism from some of the nation’s top infectious disease experts because it relies heavily on strict quarantines like those in place in Wuhan, China.

New York University experts predict spread, hospitalizations and deaths to be three to four times higher than what’s shown in the University of Washington study, according to a USA Today report.

Preparing for a surge

Describing it as “a matter of life and death,” Trump recently called for another month of social distancing.

Meanwhile, Wolf asked for and received a disaster declaration from the president, installed a statewide stay-at-home order and worked on his top concern: keeping Pennsylvania hospitals from being overwhelmed

“The biggest challenge in Pennsylvania is the same as other places – we have too few facilities to care for the number of critically ill if we have a surge in cases,” Wolf said.

State officials say they are taking steps daily to prevent that surge.

“COVID-19 is a significant public health crisis in Pennsylvania,” Wardle said. “We are hopeful that we will be able to contain this without our hospitals and the state’s health system from being overwhelmed…As shown in other parts of the country and world, this has the potential to be severe, but we are hoping that the efforts in place will prevent that from occurring in Pennsylvania.”

Local hospitals say they are preparing for a surge. Penn State Health, UPMC Pinnacle and WellSpan Health all say they have adequate supplies and equipment to meet current demands. But they’re aware of the strain on hospitals in other communities with higher volumes of coronavirus patients and have tried to learn from them. For example, in hard-hit New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered hospitals in his state to increase capacity by 50 percent. 

“We are actively working to expand critical care capacity and to secure additional supplies and equipment, should we see a significant increase in the number of positive COVID-19 patients who require treatment in our acute care hospitals,” said WellSpan spokesman Ryan Coyle. “This includes requests for more resources from the federal and state governments, as well as the sourcing of supplies and materials from vendors, local businesses and community partners.”

WellSpan expects to share plans next week about potential overflow facilities. 

UPMC’s goal is to put structures and processes in place that enable the Pittsburgh-based health system to leverage its full capacity and capability to meet the needs of its patients, spokeswoman Kelly McCall said. 

UPMC has 40 hospitals in its network, including seven in central Pennsylvania. 

“If one region in our system is hit hard, we can safely transfer patients – with or without COVID-19 – to hospitals in our system that are under less stress,” she said. 

In addition to moving patients across hospitals, UPMC has a system in place to redirect staff and supplies to its facilities that need them most, according to McCall. 

But UPMC is not expecting a big surge of patients in Pennsylvania. 

“We anticipate that most patients with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 will not need to be admitted and will recover at home,” McCall said.

Penn State Health is preparing for a surge and making arrangements for staging locations in case additional space for patient care is needed, said spokeswoman Barbara Schindo. 

“Penn State Health has worked around the clock to adapt policies and procedures and prepare its teams,” she said. “We aren’t able to predict how many people may ultimately need a high-level of care, or when — no one can at this point — but we are working diligently to support central Pennsylvania during this evolving COVID-19 pandemic.”

Staying home 

Gov. Tom Wolf on March 6 provided details on the first two positive cases of COVID-19 in Montgomery County.

“We anticipated this very scenario and have been preparing for Pennsylvanians to become impacted by this virus,” Wolf said that day. “This is not the first rapidly spreading virus we have faced in our commonwealth, and it will not be the last. We are prepared to mitigate the spread of this virus.”

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The Forrest Lakes Community gathers each morning around a flag pole at 9 a.m. to say the pledge. One resident can be heard singing across the lake. York Daily Record

Since then, the governor has issued a series of school and business closures, and stay-at-home orders, county by county. On Wednesday, he issued a statewide stay-at-home order, joining an overwhelming majority of governors who have done the same to try and stop the spread of the virus.

But throughout the last month, and especially during the last two weeks, the number of positive COVID-19 cases in Pennsylvania has continued to grow exponentially. 

“The continued exponential rise in cases further emphasizes that we need people to stay home,” Wardle said. “All the mitigation efforts in place, the closure of non-life-sustaining businesses, the closures of schools, the canceling of large events, the stay-at-home orders, have worked to keep people at home. We know that this isn’t easy, but it is the only way to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

State health officials are still trying to flatten the curve in Pennsylvania. To flatten the curve is to slow the spread of the virus to a point that fewer people need to seek medical treatment. 

The health department believes the stay-at-home orders are helping in Pennsylvania, “but we need people to continue to stay home and practice social distancing,” Wardle said. “We know this is hard, and people through human nature like to be together, but we need people to stay home.”

There is no proven treatment plan for the coronavirus, and there is no vaccine. The best offense and defense Pennsylvania has against COVID-19 is to stay home and reduce the chance of spreading the disease to someone else. 

“We all need to work together to give our healthcare system the capacity to treat this disease,” Wolf said. “So please continue to listen to the guidance of Dr. (Rachel) Levine, especially her call to stay calm, stay home and stay safe.” 

Candy Woodall is a reporter for the USA Today Network. She can be reached at 717-480-1783 or on Twitter at @candynotcandace.

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