Pennsylvania on Tuesday announced further steps to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and help ensure health systems are prepared for increased capacity, though the new measures still lack uniform enforcement.
Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said new mitigation efforts include a strengthened masking order, traveler testing order, recommendations for colleges and universities and expectations for health care systems.
The new efforts come as the state received a report from the White House Coronavirus Task Force that said current mitigation efforts across the country are inadequate and must be increased to flatten the current curve of cases.
With Pennsylvania reporting another single-day record of new cases, as well as increased hospitalizations, Levine said the state and its residents must act now to help prevent the spread of the virus. Health officials say there is no one reason for the increase of cases, though note that small gatherings where masks aren't present are helping to spread the coronavirus.
Levine called the new efforts "targeted and strategic," but said there are no plans to return to the color-coded shutdowns that were implemented earlier this year, nor are there plans to force the closure of schools outside from what is already recommended in the Department of Education's guidelines for schools in counties with community spread.
And although the new efforts are requirements, according to Levine, there is little enforcement to back up these efforts. Levine said she has the power to pursue enforcement regarding those who fail to quarantine, but the Department of Health will not be involved in checking in on travelers to the state, nor will it be involved in enforcement of masks — the latter being up to individual businesses and local law enforcement.
"I think these targeted measures are extremely important. We want to emphasize these new orders," she said, adding that what the state does next is up to the public on how they respond and adhere to the requirements.
One of the new mitigation efforts is updating an old measure first issued on April 15.
Levine on Tuesday signed an order that strengthens the old measure when it comes to mask requirements. Previously, masks were required when indoors and when someone was incapable of socially distancing from another person.
The new order requires mask usage for both indoors and outdoors, with masks required outdoors when people are not able to socially distance themselves from another person who is not in their household. Masks will be required indoors at all times, even if a person is able to socially distance themselves from other people outside of their households.
The new indoor order will apply to every indoor facility, including homes, retail establishments, gyms, doctor's offices, public transportation and anywhere food is prepared, packaged or served.
Enforcement of this order, however, will be up to local businesses who could involve law enforcement should someone refuse to wear a mask.
Pennsylvania is following the lead of other states and instituting a testing order for nearly everyone traveling into the state.
The order requires anyone who visits from another state to have proof of a negative COVID-19 test that was taken within 72 hours of entering Pennsylvania. If a person is unable to get a test, that person will have to quarantine for 14 days or until they get proof of a negative test.
This order affects out-of-state visitors, as well as Pennsylvania residents who travel out of the state and come back. The order does not affect workers who commute out of state, nor will it affect people who travel into the state for health procedures.
The order takes effect on Friday, but like the mask order, there is no one type of enforcement to make sure all travelers have proof of a negative test. Levine said they won't have staff checking on those driving or flying into the state and it will be up to travelers to adhere to the requirements themselves.
She added, however, that this order — like others in the country — is also meant as a deterrent for people to travel at all during this time.
"We're asking people not to travel ... just stay at home," Levine said.
Colleges and universities
In collaboration with the Department of Health, the state Department of Education issued recommendations for colleges and universities to implement a testing plan for when students return to campus following the holidays.
The departments are asking for colleges and universities to establish routine testing, as well as widespread population testing at the beginning of a term and when students return to campus after a break, and also have adequate capacity for isolation and quarantine of students.
Many colleges and universities already have routine testing plans in place, but the recommendations don't address testing students before they leave campus for a break.
Previously, health officials asked that colleges and universities test their students before they head out for the upcoming fall/Thanksgiving break in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19 to their hometowns. Officials said students should be tested 72 hours before they must leave, and if they get positive tests, they should remain on campus.
Shippensburg University reported Tuesday that it has 26 new cases in the last day, raising the total number of active cases at the university to 96 students and six staff/faculty. A previous outbreak was due to Halloween activities among students, and the university noted Tuesday that "risky behavior" involving a failure to wear masks and off-campus gatherings are continuing to contribute to the rise in cases.
One of the major areas of concern for health officials is hospital capacity. Levine said currently there are no hospitals in the state that are over capacity when it comes to caring for COVID-19 patients, but current data models do not paint a bright picture for Pennsylvania.
Levine said that according to models from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, Pennsyvlania could run out of intensive care beds in December if ICU admissions continue at their current rate. This model, however, doesn't account for any hospitalizations that could occur from flu patients.
The same model indicates the state will have sufficient medical-surgical beds, though with some uncertainty as to capacity from region to region. This could include Central Pennsylvania, since the number of medical-surgical beds in Cumberland County has dropped to just three available beds (about 1.9% of the county's total number of beds), according to Tuesday's figures on the state COVID-19 hospitalization dashboard.
With possible worries on the near horizon, Levine has also issued a memorandum to acute care hospitals that outlines expectations for care, which includes hospitals working with established health care coalitions or partnerships to prepare for how they will support one another in the event a hospital becomes overwhelmed during a pandemic.
The memorandum also suggests hospitals should work on moving up elective procedures and prepare to suspend them if the health system becomes strained.
Posted earlier on Cumberlink:
Pennsylvania Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine on Tuesday announced a number of "targeted and strategic" mitigation efforts to help reverse the trend of growing COVID-19 cases and community spread.
Levine said during a news conference that the department is requiring anyone traveling into Pennsylvania to either get proof of a negative test within 72 hours before entering the state or to quarantine for 14 days upon entering the state should a traveler not have a negative test.
This would apply to both visitors and Pennsylvania residents who travel elsewhere and come back to the state. The requirement would not affect work commuters or those traveling to get health care procedures.
Levine said she is also strengthening the masking order to have masks required indoors and outdoors, even if you can socially distance yourself from others when people are with others that don't live in the same household.
The Department of Health is also working with health systems to get them to organize plans on working with other hospitals regarding capacity, and the Health Department and Department of Education are working with colleges and universities to help them develop plans for testing and preventing outbreaks on campuses.
Enforcement of public measures, however, are being left up to individual businesses and law enforcement to call regarding masks, and the department wouldn't be involved in checking passengers on airplanes or coming into the state to determine if people have negative tests. Levine added that she does have the authority to take people to court should people refuse to quarantine, however.
Posted earlier from Associated Press:
HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania is planning to take additional steps to address a sharp increase in coronavirus infections and hospitalizations, officials said Tuesday.
The state health secretary, Dr. Rachel Levine, will announce “targeted efforts to control the spread of COVID-19 in Pennsylvania,” the Health Department said. The announcement is set for 1 p.m. Tuesday.
Like the rest of the nation, Pennsylvania has seen coronavirus infections explode in recent weeks. The state is reporting more than 5,000 new infections per day, up more than 115% in just two weeks, and hospitalizations and the percentage of tests coming back positive are up sharply. Deaths are on the rise, as well.
State officials did not immediately say what kinds of mitigation measures they are planning. Governors and mayors around the country have been tightening restrictions in response to the worsening pandemic. On Monday, Philadelphia said it would ban indoor gatherings and indoor dining and shutter casinos, gyms, museums and libraries.
Pennsylvania already has a statewide mask mandate, limits on indoor and outdoor gatherings and occupancy restrictions at bars and restaurants.
Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf imposed a state-at-home order and shuttered businesses deemed “non-life-sustaining” early in the pandemic, but Wolf and Levine have consistently said they have no intention of implementing another broad-based shutdown.
Email Naomi Creason at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @SentinelCreason
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