Cambria County has first virus case

A second county contiguous to Blair has reported a coronavirus case, while the first has added two cases, bringing its own total to three, according to Monday’s COVID-19 report from the state Department of Health.

Cambria is the new entry, with a patient now in isolation at Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center in Johnstown, while Centre first appeared on the state’s coronavirus map on Friday.

Despite the cases in contiguous counties, a shelter-in-place order Monday for seven counties in outbreak areas, a death toll rising to six and “exponential” increases in cases statewide, Blair County continues with no positives — although the opening of a specimen collection center here today will expand testing criteria, which may ferret out already-infected patients.

“We’re very fortunate so far,” said Blair County Emergency Management Director Mark Taylor. “But I expect as soon as testing begins, we’ll start to see some.”

He believes there are almost surely people with coronavirus in Blair.

New cases

On Monday, the state added 165 new cases, bringing its total to 644 and continuing a trend of approximately doubling the number of new cases every other day, a rate that, if continued, will overwhelm the capacity of the state’s hospitals, according to Gov. Tom Wolf on a webcast Monday.

Accordingly, Wolf stepped up mitigation efforts with his “stay-at-home” order.

The order applies to Allegheny, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Monroe, Montgomery and Philadelphia counties, effective at 8 p.m. Monday, March 23, with permitted exceptions, including grocery and pharmaceutical shopping, work at an essential business, walking or running for exercise — provided social distance is maintained — and some other necessary activities.

Enforcement for Wolf’s recent order closing non-essential businesses began Monday morning, helping to continue a supply chain disruption not seen in Pennsylvania since the Civil War, Wolf said.

Wolf also extended his statewide closure of schools Monday for two more weeks.

The state is continuing to work with hospitals, health systems, associations and agencies to increase the inventory of beds, ventilators and personal protective equipment like N95 masks, gloves and gowns, according to State Secretary of Health Rachel Levine, who was also on the webcast.

The increasingly severe restrictions are obviously distressing, as people are accustomed to going to the store, taking their kids around and visiting loved ones whenever they want, Wolf said, adding that he and his wife are “desperate” to hold their second grandchild, born a few weeks ago.

“But if we want to save lives, we must distance ourselves socially,” the governor said.

The 80 percent of people who would be “OK” if they become infected “can be forgiven for saying, ‘What’s the big deal?'” Wolf said. But they need to realize that “the big deal is that the other 20 percent include their loved ones and neighbors,” he said.

“Any one of us can spread it,” Wolf said. “That means we have to act as if we have it.”

Buying time

The exponential rise in cases, resulting in a nearly vertical line on an infection graph, will lead to calamity, as in Italy, unless mitigation “bends the curve” keeping the volume of cases below hospital capacity, according to Levine.

The hope is to “buy time,” Wolf said.

Asked about enforcement for the stay-at-home order, Wolf said the emphasis, at least initially, would be on an expectation of shared responsibility.

Asked about compliance with the business-closure order, Wolf relayed information from the state police commissioner that only a few businesses were not cooperating.

The state has granted about 2,000 waivers of the closure requirement, has denied an unspecified number of requests and told some businesses that asked for waivers they didn’t need one, Wolf said.

Wolf is not imposing a stay-at-home order for the entire state, because outside the outbreak counties, there isn’t evidence of “community spread,” Levine said.

“We don’t want to do less than we need, but we also don’t want to do more,” Wolf said.

There’s a chance that if residents of the outbreak counties “do a good job,” the rest of the state won’t need to undergo the same restrictions, he said.

Specimen collection center

The opening of the specimen collection center in Altoona today will allow for more people to be tested because it will increase the number of rooms in which specimens can be safely obtained, according to UPMC spokeswoman Danielle Sampsell.

Specimens for coronavirus testing have been taken at UPMC Altoona, but the need for the testing to be done in a “negative pressure” room to prevent the escape of the pathogen when done indoors has limited the availability of specimen collection, according to Sampsell.

The establishment of the collection center will eliminate that “barrier,” and enable UPMC to go from testing only those it deems “most likely” to be infected to “essentially anyone who a physician believes should be tested,” Sampsell said.

UPMC has not been collecting specimens from patients’ cars, Sampsell said.

The specimen collection, done with a swab down the nose into the throat needs to be done by a gowned, gloved and masked provider, Sampsell said.

It can’t be done on oneself, she said.

The specimens are sent to the UPMC testing center in Oakland or, if necessary, a commercial lab. The state also has a testing center in Exton.

Those who suspect they’re infected should call their primary care doctor or use an online service like UPMC Anywhere Care while still at home, and follow instructions — unless they have a high fever or breathing trouble, in which case they should go to the emergency department, according to Sampsell.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.