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March 25, 2020

Pennsylvania officials expect surge in coronavirus cases

New case totals continue to double – with no dip in sight

Illness Coronavirus
Pennsylvania coronavirus case anticipated surge Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

Coronavirus cases are expected surge in Pennsylvania in the coming weeks, Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said on Wednesday. If the rate of new infections does not slow, officials fear the state's health system could become overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients. Above, an aerial view of Philadelphia, including the University City health campus.

Coronavirus cases are expected surge in Pennsylvania over the next several weeks, state officials said Wednesday. 

Pennsylvania reported 276 new confirmed cases, bringing the state's total to 1,127. New case counts have been doubling every two or three days – and those numbers are unlikely to taper off anytime soon. 

"As case counts double, you can see that it's going to get very high, very fast," Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said. "The concern is that over the next number of weeks we are going to see a surge of new cases. Since approximately 10% of new cases require hospitalization, we'll see a surge in our health care facilities."

So far, the state's health system has the capacity to handle the state's hospitalized patients, Levine said. But state officials fear hospitals could quickly become overwhelmed if the exponential rise in cases is not slowed. 

Just last Thursday, when Gov. Tom Wolf ordered all non-life-sustaining businesses to close, the state had just 196 confirmed cases. 

State officials said they are working to secure the additional beds, ventilators and personal protective equipment needed to withstand the anticipated swell. And they continue to urge residents to stay at home. 

"We're not passive spectators here watching this curve rise," Wolf said. "This is something that we can do something about. To the extent that we're successful in staying home ... then that curve is not going to spike and we are not going to overwhelm the health system." 

Philadelphia and its four suburban counties are all under stay-in-place orders. So are five other counties, including Northampton and Lehigh counties, which Wolf added Wednesday. 

These restrictions have had a considerable effect on businesses, particularizing those in the service industry. 

To help them weather the crisis, the state has formed the COVID-19 Working Capital Access program, which will provide loans of up to $100,000 to for-profit businesses with 100 or fewer full-time employees. The program is funded with $60 million from the Pennsylvania Industrial Development Authority. 

Wolf sidestepped a question asking whether he envisioned Pennsylvania being able to reopen by mid-April, a timeframe being urged by President Donald Trump. 

"My goal is to Keep Pennsylvanians safe," Wolf said. "We're working diligently, decisively to do what we can to make sure we buy the time our health system needs to make sure Pennsylvanians are safe here in this commonwealth." 

There are currently 3,400 licensed intensive-care unit beds throughout Pennsylvania, Levine said. As of Wednesday, 40% of them are still available. Of the state's 3,000 ventilators, 75% are still available. 

Additionally, the state has been distributing N95 respirators to hospitals throughout the state. Before the crisis began, the state had a stockpile of 1 million respirators. 

But those beds and supplies could dwindle as the coronavirus pandemic persists.

"We are continuing to get more from the federal supply and purchasing whatever is available throughout Pennsylvania and the nation, or even overseas, to make sure our response teams have sufficient supplies of these essential resources," Levine said. 

New Jersey, which has confirmed the second-most COVID-19 cases in the United States, is opening makeshift hospitals to increase its bed capacity. 

Pennsylvania officials are working to ensure they have enough beds, including intensive care beds, to handle the anticipated surge. They also are considering using hotels and other spaces to treat sub-acute patients, Levine said. 

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