Gov. Wolf asks all Pennsylvanians to wear face masks when leaving home as the state marks record increase of COVID-19 cases

COVID-19 cases are present in 63 of Pennsylvania's 67 counties. Allegheny County reported 57 new cases on Friday, for a total of 476.

More
Man wearing face mask

A man wearing a face mask waits for the bus along Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill on March 27. (Photo by Kimberly Rowen/PublicSource)

On April 3, as the state reported another 1,404 COVID-19 cases, Gov. Tom Wolf asked that all Pennsylvanians wear face masks when leaving home.

Later on Friday afternoon, President Donald Trump shared new CDC guidance recommending cloth masks in public for everyone.

The state and the CDC say surgical masks and N95 respirator masks should still be reserved for healthcare workers or patients in healthcare settings. Homemade masks, paper masks or even bandanas and scarves can be used by the general public in addition to social distancing. Cloth masks should be washed after each use. Wolf's office has released resources instructing Pennsylvanians on how to make homemade masks.

Until recently, the public has generally been advised against wearing face masks by all authorities, particularly because of reported shortages for healthcare workers. Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine addressed this shift: “What’s changed is the views of the public health community, nationally and internationally, on the utility of the whole community using masks.”

Friday's reported spike in cases marks another record single-day increase of COVID-19 cases. There are now 8,420 confirmed cases spanning 63 of the 67 counties.

The state also experienced 12 additional deaths; in total, 102 Pennsylvanians are reported to have died of COVID-19.

According to the state Department of Health, 53,695 people have tested negative for COVID-19.

About 12% of Pennsylvania’s nursing homes have reported a COVID-19 infection. Levine said the department is working with various state agencies to protect staff and residents, including transferring infected residents to hospitals. They want to contract with a company that will help serve as a “nursing home swat team” that would visit nursing homes to help prevent spread, Levine said.

Allegheny County reported 57 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Friday.

The new cases take the county total to 476, and the jump represents a 13% increase from Thursday's count.

Of the total cases, 78 patients have been hospitalized. The county death toll remains at two.

The 25-49 age group continues to represent the largest percentage of state and county cases, at 41% and 43%, respectively.

At a briefing Friday morning, City of Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich said that Pittsburghers have generally been following social distancing guidelines, but last weekend was an exception. He cited many instances of residents gathering in large groups and parkgoers not adequately maintaining the 6 feet of social distance recommended. He and other officials emphasized the need to remain vigilant about following CDC guidelines.

Mayor William Peduto emphasized that the next two weeks in particular are critical for curbing the number of coronavirus cases.

“If we should slip ... we will exponentially have more fatalities,” he said.

On Thursday, April 2, Scientists at the University of Pittsburgh reported promising results in a potential vaccine to fight COVID-19, according to a study published Thursday in EBioMedicine, a peer-reviewed journal published by the Lancet.

The scientists are working with the Food and Drug Administration to try to start a human trial but could not give a timeline for how long it would take for any possible approval, describing the process as “iterative.” The scientists said at a press conference that national estimates of 12 to 18 months for the process was broadly true but that they were hoping to speed up the regulatory process from months to weeks.

When tested on mice, the potential new vaccine produced antibodies that the scientists believe could be sufficient to neutralize the virus. This is the first COVID-19 vaccine study that has been published and peer reviewed, according to a University of Pittsburgh Press release. There are many scientists across the globe trying to find a vaccine, and any approval depends on successful trials focused on safety and effectiveness. 

The scientists started developing the vaccine, which is administered as a patch, on Jan. 21 when the DNA sequence for the virus became available. They reported developing the vaccine in seven days before starting testing on mice.

Gov. Tom Wolf announced a statewide stay-at-home order on April 1. Previously, 33 counties were under such orders, including Allegheny. The statewide stay-at-home order will be in effect until April 30.  

“Every day we wait, the coronavirus spreads further and becomes more difficult to suppress,” Wolf said in a press conference Wednesday afternoon. “So we need to act now.

“Some of you might think that a month is too long to go without seeing your friends or family. But if we don’t do everything we can to slow the spread of COVID-19, there are some people who you will never see again.” 

Wolf's office has provided a full list of activities that are acceptable and the state has a list of business categories, indicating if they are life-sustaining and can stay open, or not.

Levine said Wednesday that while it’s too soon to tell if the state’s viral curve is flattening, maintaining these stay-at-home orders can prevent an overwhelming surge of cases and limit the disease to numbers that can be handled by the healthcare system.

Levine on Tuesday said that the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health has created a statistical model to forecast the spread of the virus in the state, but due to the complexity of modeling infectious diseases, the state is still awaiting the projections.

Pennsylvania's confirmed cases can be seen here in a Department of Health table by county.

Some of the fastest growth in cases in the state in recent days continues to be in and around Philadelphia, but over the last couple of days, the number of cases has also been rising rapidly in the areas around Allentown and Scranton. Levine on Thursday said she believed the increase in COVID-19 in northeastern Pennsylvania is a rise in real cases not just a reflection of additional testing. She said she doesn't know why it's happening there.

“We can’t tell what the travel patterns are or why we are seeing more in that area,” she said at a Thursday press conference. According to Levine, the state has had 730 hospitalizations, and 130 of those patients have required ventilators. A total of 345 health care workers have tested positive.


Pennsylvania’s Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar said in a press conference Wednesday that the state will be “in a good place” to conduct its primary election on June 2. The election was previously moved from April 28 to June 2 due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

She pointed out two pieces of state legislation, Act 77 of 2019 and Act 12 of 2020, which enable the state to carry out an election during the coronavirus crisis. Act 77 allows  Pennsylvania voters to request a mail-in ballot, and Act 12 loosens regulations on poll workers, ensuring that polls will be adequately staffed come election day.

All Pennsylvania schools have also now been instructed to remain closed until further notice. Wolf on Monday said the state is working on a plan for remote learning. On Tuesday, the Pennsylvania Department of Education released free resources for teachers.

Since March 15, the state’s Department of Labor and Industry has received 834,684 new unemployment claims, according to the Department of Labor and Industry Secretary Jerry Oleksiak on March 30.

“That eclipses anything that we’ve experienced in a weekly total, and maybe even a yearly total,” Oleksiak said.

On Monday, the online portal to make claims was down for about an hour. Oleksiak said the site is now functional and that technical issues have been minimal, and the department is hiring additional staff.

Oleksiak said one reason for the high number of claims could be the lack of mandatory sick leave or family medical leave.

Pennsylvania has received a waiver from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to allow local providers of Medicaid and Children's Health Insurance Program [CHIP] flexibility to increase access to health care and public assistance funds.

Hover over counties to interact with map

'Community spread'

COVID-19 is the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

Allegheny County Health Department Director Dr. Debra Bogen said that according to some models, 40% to 50% of people with COVID-19 may not have any symptoms, but may still be able to transmit the disease to others. “Rather than put yourself and others at risk, we urge you to act as if you and others around you have COVID-19,” Bogen said.

LuAnn Brink, Allegheny County Health Department’s chief epidemiologist, said Tuesday that the county has been testing about 500 people per day for the past week. “That’s a giant increase that we’re very happy about,” she said.

As in the state as a whole, Allegheny County’s COVID-19 patients skew toward the 25 to 49 age group but the patients who have died were in their 60s and 70s.

The first person who died of the coronavirus in Allegheny County was a Clairton resident. The second person who died of coronavirus in Allegheny County did not know she had the disease, according to a county press release issued Tuesday morning. The woman in her late 70s had not traveled recently, according to the release. She had other medical conditions that may have delayed her recognizing that she had COVID-19.

The county on March 27 introduced an online map showing the locations of the known cases within its borders. Pittsburgh had more than 1/3 of the county's cases, with McCandless and Ross in distant second and third places.

The county also announced that two residents of the Kane Community Living Centers in Glen Hazel have tested positive, and are in isolation in that facility. Residents of neighboring rooms are being tested; staff on that unit will be screened; and all residents will be checked for fever, according to a county press release. The county announced March 25 that a Glen Hazel staff member had tested positive.

Allegheny County is experiencing "community spread" — the transmission of the novel coronavirus to people who haven't traveled to areas of high incidence or had contact with a known infected person, said Brink in a March 26 press conference.

"There are a few [cases] that I know of without known exposure to an ill individual," she said. She later added: "Everyone is at risk of this disease. There is no immunity. There is community spread at this point."

The county has launched a “rumor control” page and is asking residents to email rumors to web.comm@alleghenycounty.us, so that it can correct any misinformation that is circulating.

The county is asking that anyone wanting to donate supplies — including construction companies that might have protective masks — first send an email to covid19donations@alleghenycounty.us. Fitzgerald asked that nothing be donated at this point to keep the county from being overwhelmed with items it doesn’t need.

Healthcare systems

While significant, the pandemic, so far, falls far short of overwhelming the 5,500-bed UPMC system.

“COVID-19 is here but not necessarily as intensely active or widespread as in other regions of the country," Graham Snyder, the system's medical director of infection prevention and hospital epidemiology, said March 27.

“We are preparing for a surge that we hope never arrives, but we’re ready for the worst," said Donald Yealy, chair of UPMC's Department of Emergency Medicine.

The system has 750 intensive care beds, 450 others that can be quickly converted to ICU capabilities, and plans in the works to boost every hospital's capacity by 200%, the doctors said.

“Preparing for a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic is a massive and humbling challenge," said Rachel Sackrowitz, chief medical officer of UPMC's ICU Service Center. "Nobody can be truly ready for this, but we’re as prepared as we can be.”

UPMC continues to perform some non-emergency surgeries that doctors and patients deem necessary, the doctors said.

UPMC on March 26 confirmed to PublicSource reports trickling out of its hospitals that some of its employees have contracted coronavirus.

“As would be expected with increased testing throughout our communities, some of our employees have tested positive for COVID-19,” a UPMC spokesperson wrote in an email to PublicSource. “In every such case, we are using U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and working with local public health authorities to identify and contact individuals who may have been exposed and providing them with free screening and guidance on quarantine.”

The health system's three-doctor panel declined to say how many of the system's employees have tested positive, which hospitals include infected staff, or how many employees have been asked to stay home due to potential exposure. Snyder cited employee and patient privacy as the reason for declining to release any employee-related numbers.

Allegheny Health Network did not immediately respond to an inquiry regarding the impact of the coronavirus on its staffing.

UPMC has used telemedicine to reduce the chance of transmission to staff and patients, the doctors said.

According to Yealy, the system has enough surgical masks, N95 respirators, gowns and gloves to protect staff.

“We are not short on protective supplies," he said. "Any employee who can’t find the protective equipment they want immediately has the ability to talk to a supervisor” and get the needed supplies.

All staff and visitors are being screened and provided with masks for protection, he added.


State and local actions

On March 19, the U.S. Small Business Administration made loans available for businesses and eligible nonprofits in Pennsylvania, following a request from Wolf for disaster relief. The federal loans offer up to $2 million per loan in assistance. The state will finalize a $60 million low-interest loan program for small businesses, Wolf said on March 20.

Wolf sent a letter to U.S. federal agencies requesting a special enrollment period for uninsured or underinsured Pennsylvania residents. The action would allow eligible residents to purchase federal health insurance, and for the coverage to be effective immediately.

Wolf on Wednesday, March 25 announced the COVID-19 Working Capital Access Program, a new small-business loan program funded by the Pennsylvania Industrial Development Authority’s Small Business First Fund. Loans of up to $100,000 will be available to businesses with 100 or fewer full-time employees.

The City of Pittsburgh moved to Level 2 emergency operations on March 18. Public safety departments will continue responding to emergency situations as usual. See the city’s press release for the full list of updates.

This article was reported by Nicole C. Brambila, Oliver Morrison, Rich Lord, Matt Petras, Juliette Rihl, Charlie Wolfson and Mark Kramer.

This post is being updated throughout the day to reflect the latest information. Outdated information is being removed for ease of use.

PublicSource has a special page dedicated to our reporting on COVID-19 for the Pittsburgh region. See it here and sign up for our newsletter to stay informed. We hope you are following the news and, if your situation allows, social distancing guidelines.  Have a tip or an idea? Please email mila@publicsource.org.

Comments are closed.