Pennsylvania tightens mask mandate, orders COVID testing

Pennsylvania COVID-19 live updates, news and information

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Wednesday, November 18, 2020
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Pennsylvania is working to curb the sharp increase in coronavirus infections and hospitalizations by issuing strict testing guidelines surrounding people traveling to the state.

HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania (WPVI) -- Pennsylvania is working to curb the sharp increase in coronavirus infections and hospitalizations by issuing strict testing guidelines surrounding people traveling to the state.

Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said the new requirements come as a new study from the IMHE at the University of Washington showed that Pennsylvania could run out of hospital ICU beds as soon as next month.

Among the new requirements: anyone who travels to Pennsylvania needs to get a COVID-19 test within 72 hours of arrival. If for any reason a person does not want to get tested, or cannot get tested, they must quarantine for 14 days. The new policies go into effect on Friday, November 20.

As far as enforcement goes, Levine said the expectation is people will comply.

"We're not looking to take people to court, but I do have that authority and so we cannot check every car driving into Pennsylvania and we have no plans to check everyone coming off every airplane," Levine said.

A Philadelphia International Airport spokesperson told Action News in part: "PHL supports efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in the commonwealth. For those who must travel, the airport will remain operational, safe and accessible."

The spokesperson said at this moment, there are no additional mandates for screening from the FAA.

Health officials are also tightening mask-wearing requirements.

Levine said masks must be worn any time you are indoors with people outside your household, even if you can remain socially distant.

Masks must be worn in every indoor facility, including schools; gyms; doctor's offices; public transportation; anywhere food is transported, packaged or served.

Katya Simonsen of Cape May said, "It's annoying but if that's what we have to do to keep everyone safe and healthy then I think it's worth it."

On Kelly Drive, exercisers, for the most part had them on, or put them on when passing by people.

However, Robert Downs of Germantown says he's running without one for now.

"I feel as though when I run past somebody I'm going at a high rate of speed and I'm not going to be around for only maybe like 1.2 seconds," said Downs.

Outside the LA Fitness on City Avenue in Montgomery County, Mike Reed says, "It's difficult working out with a mask but you gotta do what you gotta do. If people don't have their mask they come around and they make them put their masks on."

Pennsylvania health officials are also calling on colleges and universities to implement a testing strategy to prevent outbreaks and a plan for when students return to campus after the holiday break.

Colleges and universities should have adequate capacity for isolation and quarantine and should be prepared to enforce violations of established policies such as mask wearing and physical distancing, Levine said.

On Tuesday, health officials reported 5,900 additional positive cases of COVID-19, bringing the statewide total to 275,513 in Pennsylvania. This is the highest daily increase of cases.

There are 2,575 individuals hospitalized with COVID-19. Of that number, 558 patients are in the intensive care unit, officials said.

As of 11:59 p.m., Monday, there were 30 new deaths reported for a total of 9,355 deaths attributed to COVID-19.

According to the Action News Data Journalism team, the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Pennsylvania is approaching the peak reported back in the spring.

Five of the 10 counties with the most hospitalized COVID patients in the state are in the Delaware Valley. The list includes: Philadelphia, Montgomery, Lehigh, Berks and Delaware counties.

"Hospitals should also be working now to move up elective procedures and prepare to reduce them if our health care system should become strained," Levine said.

Low percentage of Pennsylvanians cooperating with COVID-19 tracing efforts, officials say

Officials said a startling trend has begun in Pennsylvania. As the number of COVID-19 cases continue to climb, the number of people cooperating with the state's efforts to contact trace has plummeted.

Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine said of those people contacted, only 16% were willing to say whether they visited a business or large gathering.

"More and more people are not providing this information as part of a case investigation. That's a real challenge for us," said Levine.

Contact tracing is a way for the state health department to contact people who have come into close contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus.

That way, those people know to quarantine to help prevent it from spreading any further.


Lower Merion School District going all-virtual

The Lower Merion School District will return to all-virtual learning starting November 17, 2020. Officials had hoped to keep middle school and high school students in the classroom until next week, but after looking at the latest COVID-19 case counts, Montgomery County heath officials advised the district to end in-person instruction immediately.

Philadelphia announces new restrictions

Mayor Jim Kenney and Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley announced sweeping new restrictions during a news conference on Monday afternoon.

"I know these restrictions are tough. People are going to be put out of work, and some businesses may go under. We also know that the consequences to health of not doing it are really bad," Farley said. "If we do this right, our businesses will recover faster because the epidemic wave will subside sooner."

The new restrictions impact indoor and outdoor dining, schools, businesses and sporting events. CLICK HERE for the full list.

Montco Schools Ordered to go Virtual

Health officials in Pennsylvania's third-most populous county ordered schools Friday to temporarily halt classroom instruction in what they said was an effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

The Montgomery County Board of Health mandated that all public and private K-12 schools in the suburban Philadelphia county offer virtual instruction for two weeks beginning Nov. 23.

The unanimous vote came one day after dozens of parents and school administrators expressed vehement opposition to the plan, calling online education insufficient and accusing the health board of failing to present any evidence linking schools to the wider outbreak.

Board members said Friday that rising cases counts and hospitalizations, along with the potential that children will contract the virus over Thanksgiving break and then spread it in schools, required them to act.

"I completely understand their concerns," said board member Dr. Francis Jeyaraj, a pediatrician. "But these are difficult times for all of us. It's a total community effort."

Board member Barbara Wadsworth, senior vice president and chief nursing officer at Main Line Health, said her four hospitals were treating 33 patients for COVID-19 four weeks ago, with that number rising to 106 now.

She said virtual instruction is "difficult and certainly not easy, but I think that if we don't do this then we will be in a significantly worse situation post-Thanksgiving holiday."

The decision left some parents furious.

"It was like a moment of being speechless and wanting to scream at the top of my lungs at the same time," said Katrina Turtu of Telford.

After hearing the board's decision to close all schools for two weeks, Turtu says she was left feeling frustrated and deflated. Her daughter, Annabella, is on the autism spectrum and has severe anxiety.

"Within a month of her being out of school, she was expressing suicidal tendencies. At 7 years old her words were she 'can't handle this anymore,' she 'doesn't want to live.' I wanted these people yesterday, and those board members, to think about that for a second," says Turtu.

Parents worry that this two-week time period may be extended and wonder why other businesses aren't being shuttered first.

"I don't want anything to shut down quite honestly, but I know that schools are not the first thing to shut down," said Erin Stein or Fort Washington.

The board made one small concession, dropping language that made the shutdown more open-ended.

Across Pennsylvania, some schools, including in the state's largest school district in Philadelphia, have yet to return to classroom instruction, while others started the academic year virtually and then invited students to return to class at least part-time.

Schools that are open for in-person instruction have responded to small clusters of virus cases by shutting down for several days at a time.

Gov. Tom Wolf ordered a statewide schools closure after the pandemic arrived in Pennsylvania last March.

For this academic year, the Pennsylvania Department of Health recommends that schools go virtual if the surrounding county is determined to have a "substantial" level of community spread for two consecutive weeks - the status in 23 counties right now - but leaves the ultimate decision to local authorities.

Central Bucks School District has no plans to suspend in-class instruction

Sports and in-person classes will continue as planned for the foreseeable future for the Central Bucks School District, the third-largest in the state. The decision was confirmed by Superintendent Dr. John Kopicki, which resonated well with students and parents.

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Health experts warn against holiday travel, unnecessary COVID testing

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