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State: Wear masks at home, too

The Wolf administration on Tuesday tightened its guidance in response to the state’s swelling coronavirus numbers — fortifying an order on masking, adding an order on traveling, setting “expectations” for hospitals and making recommendations for colleges.

The changes came as Pennsylvania set its 12th daily record for new cases since Oct. 23, with 5,900 positives — almost three times the high in April, when the pandemic began.

The weather has turned colder, driving people indoors, facilitating spread of the virus here, as it has fueled spread in the Mountain West and Upper Midwest, where it turned colder earlier and where COVID-19 is “absolutely burning,” Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said in a virtual news conference.

Masks now will be required indoors, even at home and even when social distance is maintained, as long as people outside one’s household are present, and outdoors when 6 feet of distance can’t be maintained, according to Levine and a Department of Health news release.

Masking is “a simple, yet effective way to limit exposure,” and protects both the wearer and others, Levine said.

Travelers entering the state, including Pennsylvanians returning from visits, will need a negative COVID-19 test from no more than 72 hours before, or else must quarantine for two weeks — except for commuters and medical patients, according to Levine.

“Pennsylvania is not an island,” Levine said, referring to the potential for aggravating the existing outbreak.

Hospitals should work through existing “coalitions and other partnerships” to be ready to help each other in case any become “overwhelmed,” and should be ready to move up or suspend electives to avoid becoming strained, Levine said.

“These facilities have a great tradition of mutual aid and support,” Levine said.

Colleges should be ready to test all students returning from the holidays, while ensuring capacity for isolation and quarantine and preparing to enforce masking and distancing requirements, according to Levine.

The mask order “applies to every indoor facility, including homes, retail establishments, gyms, doctors’ offices, public transportation and anywhere food is prepared, packaged or served,” the news release states.

It’s the responsibility of businesses to enforce the mask mandate, Levine said.

“But we don’t want it to lead to conflict,” Levine said.

The travel order, which takes effect Friday, actually conceals a more radical preference: “We’re asking for people not to travel,” Levine said. That will apply especially to the holidays, when it will be better for people to limit in-person celebrations to members of their own households, while convening virtually with others, according to Levine.

Clearly, that will be “a tremendous sacrifice,” she said. “But we are in the biggest health crisis in 102 years,” she said, adding that it’s predicted Pennsylvania could have 18,000 deaths by March.

Still, officials aren’t going to be meeting planes or trying to check passengers in vehicles entering Pennsylvania, Levine said.

“We’re not looking to take people to court,” she said.

The advice for hospitals comes as hospitalizations, including for intensive care, are rising, creating a risk that Pennsylvania could run out of ICU beds if ICU admissions continue at the current rate, according to the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation, Levine said.

Still, hospitals are doing OK for now and are able to take care of both their COVID-19 and other patients, Levine said.

The hospitals themselves, rather than the state, can make the best decisions about whether to adjust their policies on elective procedures to ensure they have enough capacity for COVID-19, Levine said.

In addition to testing after the holidays, colleges also should be testing students at the beginning of terms and periodically throughout their stays on campus, according to Levine.

The administration wants colleges — just like hospitals — to “collaborate and take control,” she said.

The administration is not “announcing anything now” about potential additional restrictions on the upcoming games that will determine the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association championships in fall sports or about winter sports, Levine said.

Nor, at this point, are there plans to shut down the state as happened in the spring, or to return to the restrictions of the Red, Yellow and Green “schema,” Levine said.

Whether additional re­­strictions are ultimately needed will depend on “each one of us taking responsibility for the common good,” Levine said.

“If we all do our part and stand united, we might not need (those),” Levine said. “We must all be diligent.”

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 814-949-7038.

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