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State tries to prepare for virus crisis

Blair County’s coronavirus case load doubled to six Monday, according to the state Department of Health’s daily COVID-19 report.

Three of Blair’s contiguous counties also added to their totals Monday: Centre, up two to 24; Clearfield, up two to four; and Cambria up one to two — while Huntingdon remained at a single case and Bedford still has none.

As predicted, the appearance of confirmed cases in Blair County followed the opening a week ago of a UPMC specimen collection site on Pleasant Valley Boulevard, where 85 samples were taken by Monday — with as much as 75 additional samples likely by week’s end, according to UPMC spokeswoman Danielle Sampsell.

The overall infection count in Pennsylvania is nudging upward again, after an “exponential” period during which it doubled every two or three days, followed by a few days where the numbers hovered around the 500s.

There were 44 more positives Monday than Sunday, and about 100 more on Sunday than the day before, according to the Department of Health.

While the rise in new cases is less acute than it had been a week ago, and while there are “positive indications” in some areas, it’s still too early to draw definitive conclusions, according to state epidemiologist Sharon Watkins.

“We would want to see certain things happen during a (sustained) period of time,” Watkins said, when asked whether the numbers may be “edging to the peak.”

Things could go either way at this point for Pennsylvania, according to Wolf.

The state’s hospital system is not yet overwhelmed, and certain models predict that it won’t be — but other models say that if certain trends continue, the hospitals will be swamped, Wolf said.

The state is trying to help hospitals gear up for the crisis, even as it has enacted “mitigation” measures to minimize infections, including closures of all schools and non-essential businesses, extended Monday for an indefinite period, along with stay-home orders in 26 counties — orders that now extend to the end of April.

Compliance with those mitigation orders currently seems good, according to Wolf’s observations during a drive to deliver a webcast in place of state Health Secretary Rachel Levine, who is “exhausted” and had the day off, Wolf said.

“I was really impressed with what I saw” — the empty parking lots and the light highway traffic, Wolf said.

“Thank you for staying in,” he added.

“It’s hard to be confined,” he continued, acknowledging the pending onset of spring fever. But people can carry the “sneaky” virus for two weeks unawares, spreading it to others, if out in the community, he said.

“You don’t know who has it,” Wolf said. “You don’t know if you have it.”

The governor opposes legislation proposed by State Sen. Doug Mastriano to rescind the closure order for non-essential businesses, and to depend instead on guidance by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Labor, he stated Monday.

“We don’t want to happen here what happened in Italy” — where the death rate climbed to 11 percent, because hospitals lacked the resources to handle the influx of COVID-19 patients, Wolf said.

There have been 4,087 cases so far in Pennsylvania, with 48 deaths, Watkins said.

“We want a hard stop right now in order not to get to (Italy’s) point,” Wolf said. “It’s got to be as hard and pure as we can.”

The DoH is not recommending that everyone wear masks in public, as suggested over the weekend by U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, as “the jury is out” on that use, Wolf said.

Masks may help keep infected people from spreading the virus, but it’s not clear that it keeps wearers from becoming infected, he said.

The state will continue to look at the matter and “see what medical science” has to say, according to Wolf.

Wolf’s business closure order has been softened by the issuance of waivers, but there have been inconsistencies in the waiver program, Wolf admitted Monday.

The state is trying to correct those inconsistencies — although there have been waivers granted that only appear to be in conflict with the rules, he said.

Statewide, no non-essential businesses have been cited for failure to close, because those that have been warned for violating the order have decided not to “push back” — as far as he knows, Wolf said.

There have been reports of New York City residents coming to Philadelphia for obstetrics and gynecological services, because they’re reluctant to have their babies in the New York outbreak zone, according to Wolf, in answer to a question Monday.

But those patients haven’t presented an unmanageable challenge, at least yet, the governor said.

The state is working with the federal government as well as Pennsylvania manufacturers to get more personal protective gear and other needed equipment for hospitals, according to Wolf.

Working with the federal government helps reduce the likelihood of a “wild scramble” among the states, he said.

Pennsylvania firms working with the Wolf administration include a uniform manufacturer in the eastern part of the state and an electronics firm in Pittsburgh, Wolf said.

“In a perfect world,” the state could use 1,000 to 1,400 more ventilators, Wolf said.

Two temporary hospitals in the Philadelphia area that the federal government is constructing could be models for other areas in the state if and when the need arises, Wolf said.

The state also could open dorms on the campuses of state colleges to house health care workers, and, along with hotels, to provide subacute beds for patients displaced by the epidemic from hospitals, Wolf said.

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