Gov. Tom Wolf said the state is ramping up its efforts to expand capacity in the state’s healthcare system to address a potential dramatic spike in the number of COVID-19 cases. 

“We are busy building an army of medical professionals to care for everyone who becomes ill,” Wolf said during a press conference Saturday about an hour after the state announced 2,751 confirmed cases.

Still, Wolf added that the primary determinant of whether the state will succeed at mitigating the virus’ spread is its efforts at social distancing.

Wolf laid out at the 1 p.m. Saturday press conference the efforts that the state has taken in recent days, including loosening licensing requirements for healthcare professionals, including retired doctors, doctors just coming out of medical school, healthcare workers from other states, respiratory therapists, physician assistants and pharmacists.

Nurse practitioners would also be allowed to practice in any field they are needed, and the retired doctors can help serve ordinary patients in addition to ones with COVID-19, Wolf said. So far, Wolf said, 119 retired doctors have requested licenses to begin practicing again. 

Wolf signed legislation Friday that approved $50 million to spend on additional medical supplies. Dr. Rachel Levine, secretary of the Department of Health, said the state was able to identify additional ventilators, so the state now has more than 4,000 — about 75% of which are not being used. There are 3,400 total ICU beds in the state and 40% remain open at this time, she said.

So far, the state has experienced 314 hospitalizations related to COVID-19, and 96 patients who have required ICU treatment, including 56 who have needed ventilators, Levine said. A total of 34 patients have died as of Saturday morning.

It was still unclear exactly how much additional resources the state would get from the federal stimulus package, Wolf said, but he indicated that he was happy with it. He said the state and local governments would get about $5 billion, along with additional resources through Medicaid and unemployment insurance programs.

Wolf’s comments come on a day when the number of confirmed cases continues to increase by about a third every day. Wolf and Levine said the state has enough capacity to handle all of its COVID-19 cases if the state’s efforts to socially isolate individuals are successful. All of the models they have looked at, including a model from the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health, depend on effective social distancing, they said.

“If we’re successful, we’re going to have enough. If we don’t do this, if we shirk our duty, then … the most pessimistic models are going to be the ones that have the day,” Wolf said.

The state has put up signs as travelers enter from New York to quarantine themselves for 14 days, as was recommended by President Donald Trump. And the state has stopped bus services from the city, Wolf said, as New York has been hit by the most severe outbreak in the country. But so far, Wolf said they haven’t seen a spike from New York, and Levine said the state is no longer tracking where individual cases come from because there is now community spread.

Oliver Morrison is PublicSource’s environment and health reporter. He can be reached at oliver@publicsource.org or on Twitter @ORMorrison.

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Oliver reports on K-12 education for PublicSource. Before becoming a journalist, Oliver taught English and drama in the Arkansas Delta for seven years. He has previously written education features in New...