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Wolf warns hospitals at risk, mulls new COVID restrictions

Health care system in danger of being overwhelmed says Governor

The coronavirus is running rampant throughout Pennsylvania and could soon force overwhelmed hospitals to begin turning away patients, Gov. Tom Wolf warned Monday, calling it a “dangerous, disturbing scenario” that will become reality if people don’t take steps to slow the spread.

Additional pandemic restrictions might be on the way, said Wolf, who did not elaborate on what his administration is considering but acknowledged the ones already in place have not worked.

“Over the course of the past two weeks, unfortunately, Pennsylvania’s situation has become even more dire, and I find myself here saying things I really, really wish I didn’t have to say,” Wolf said at a virtual news conference. “If we don’t slow the spread of this dangerous virus now, the reality is that COVID-19 will overwhelm our hospitals, will overwhelm our health care system.”

Citing sharp increases in new infections, hospitalizations and deaths, Wolf said the unchecked spread of the virus in all regions of the state means that resource-sharing agreements among hospitals could soon begin to break down and force them to begin rationing care.

“If the worst happens, hospitals will not be able to treat all sick Pennsylvanians,” he said. “They’ll be forced to turn away people who need treatment, and that means more Pennsylvanians will die.”

Even with that stark warning, Wolf, a Democrat, all but ruled out a return to the kinds of statewide restrictions he imposed last spring, when schools were closed, thousands of businesses deemed non-essential were shut down, and all 12.8 million Pennsylvanians were under a stay-at-home order.

“The blunt instruments that we had to use to buy time back in March and April, we don’t need anymore. We can be much more targeted,” he said.

The state has already imposed restrictions on bars and restaurants, limited indoor and outdoor gatherings, mandated the wearing of masks, and required out-of-state travelers to test negative for the virus before arrival. Health officials have also begged people to stay at home whenever possible.

But those measures and advisories have not prevented Pennsylvania’s numbers from going in the wrong direction amid the national surge.

Hospitalizations are up tenfold since Oct. 1, and the supply of beds in intensive-care units is running low. Deaths have risen 85% in two weeks, to an average of 140 per day, according to an AP analysis of data from The COVID Tracking Project. Pennsylvania is averaging 9,000 new confirmed infections per day.

Maureen Casey, a nurse at Hershey Medical Center, said her hospital is under severe strain as COVID patients keep coming like “waves on a shore.” Medical staff are worn out, she said.

“Nurses go home, cry in the shower, cry in the car alone because of the desperation and exhaustion they feel,” Casey said at Monday’s briefing.

The state health secretary, Dr. Rachel Levine, said many hospitals are at or near capacity, and are faced with staffing shortages.

COVID-19 is also overloading Pennsylvania’s contact tracing system, which has been unable to keep up with the unrelenting torrent of new cases.

Public health experts say it’s important to interview people who have tested positive for the virus as soon as possible so their “close contacts,” or the people they exposed, can be identified and quarantined. But for the week of Nov. 22, only about 13% of the people testing positive were contacted within a day, the state Health Department said Monday.

With Pennsylvania reporting nearly 13,000 new cases on Saturday alone — a record — Levine said the state is focusing its tracing efforts on nursing homes, prisons and other vulnerable populations.

“It is impossible to do case investigations and contact tracing for that amount of people,” Levine said. “We’re not able to get to much of the general population.”

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