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Gov. Wolf on coronavirus: 'We're not fighting a battle here, we're fighting a war'; state details patients' ages

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Gov. Tom Wolf said Pennsylvania is “just seeing the beginning” of the coronavirus pandemic, and residents “must prepare ourselves mentally and physically for the long haul.

“We don’t how bad the surge will be or when this pandemic will end,” he said during a press conference Thursday, adding, “We’re not fighting a battle here, we’re fighting a war.”

The number of cases in the state took by far its biggest jump Thursday, up 560 cases to 1,687, with 16 deaths.

“This demonstrates that exponential rise that we have been discussing,” said Pennsylvania Department of Heath Secretary Rachel Levine. It’s an exponential rise that state officials are trying to fight — to flatten the curve — so that hospitals and health care providers are not overwhelmed. That’s a point that Wolf and Levine made again Thursday, as they have many times since the first case of the coronavirus was reported in Pennsylvania.

“This virus has a lag, so we’re just now seeing people who contracted it as long as two weeks ago,” Wolf said. 

“I think it’s going to be a very difficult number of weeks, but we are hopeful that we will be able to see progress,” Levine said.

For the first time, Levine broke down the cases by age brackets.

• About 46 percent of cases in the state are with people 50 and older.

• The 25-to-49 age bracket makes up about 39 percent of the cases. “It’s very important that younger adults not be complacent about their susceptibility to COVID-19,” she said.

• More than 170 Pennsylvanians have required hospitalization since March 6, or about 10 percent of those who have the coronavirus. That is consistent with previous days’ numbers in Pennsylvania and other states.

• Of the 170 hospitalized, 56 required intensive care, and 32 needed ventilators or breathing machines.

•  Of those hospitalized, 46 percent are older than age 65, many with chronic medical conditions.

• 68 percent of deaths are from people older than 65. All the deaths are adults.

She also provided numbers for supplies the state has issued to hospitals, health systems, emergency responders and counties. It has distributed:

• 678,630 N95 masks

• 207,600 procedure masks

• 380,000 gloves

• 36,870 gowns for protective personal equipment

• 44,000 goggles and face protection.

The state is trying to get more. Some are coming from federal stockpiles but they are also scouring the state and country to purchase whatever is available.

“We need to get the equipment needed to care for the people who do get sick. We know our hospitals will face capacity issues. We need more beds. We need more ventilators, more personal protective equipment, and so much more. And we need it as soon as possible, because the virus is here,” Wolf said.

He thanked the state Legislature for allocating $50 million in transferred funding for the state’s health care system.

The $50 million in funding will be deposited into a restricted account under the governor's jurisdiction, and funds will be used if there are insufficient funds available from the disaster proclamation “to buy medical equipment and supplies for health care entities to meet urgent patient and staff needs to address surge demand. Health care entities include hospitals, nursing facilities and emergency medical services,” according to the legislation, which is House Bill 1232.

The governor is expected to sign the bill Friday.

“I am working to get this funding moving as quickly as I can,” he said.

He added: “We need to ensure that they have the equipment to care for these patients so they don’t have to ration or make unimaginable choices about who receives care.”

He said by choosing to stay home, we are thanking a medical professional.

Other points made during Thursday’s press conference:

• Wolf said by the end of Friday, the state estimates there will be 800,000 new unemployment claims in Pennsylvania — about 10 percent of all the new claims in the United States. “Pennsylvania is really the epicenter of the unemployment insurance claims, and we’re doing everything we can to make sure that we turn these things around as quickly as possible. We’re not doing a perfect job yet, but we’re working on it and every day I think we’re getting better at this.”

• Officials continue to look at canceling school for the rest of the academic year, as has been done in other states, including Virginia. “We’re going to have to decide what happens with the rest of the school year. We’re working with educators and will continue to make sure that we’re being fair to the students and the educators to make sure we keep all of them safe.”

• Levine acknowledged that Pennsylvanians are likely stressed by both the coronavirus and the economic strain it is causing. “I am sure that there are many anxieties that people have during these very challenging times, and that includes anxieties about health, the health of themselves and their families and their neighbors.”

• When asked about non-emergency construction, Wolf said: “We’re trying to apply common sense here. There are remodeling and construction jobs that places need to put house wrap on or finish a structure so it’s not a problem, a safety hazard for the neighborhood. I think we need to be smart about this and apply common sense. It’s one of those things that’s not a broad, one-size-fits-all answer. The idea is, if there is a need, if this is something that really has to be done, and it’s something we can do in a safe and sound manner, then we out to proceed with it. But the overall goal here is to do everything we can to keep from bringing people together.”

• Wolf said state officials are looking at regularly scheduled bus service coming in from states with severe problems with the coronavirus, including New York.

• Wolf was asked if he would vow to release all the waivers granted to businesses under the non-life-sustaining measures he put in place. “If I can be convinced that that’s in the best interest of making sure we’re doing the right thing, I will do that,” he said, adding, “I think the process is working well. I want to be as open and transparent as I can. I also don’t want to make this process subject to all kinds of pressures that might make it work less well than it should. At this point, we’re focused on consistency. We’re focused on trying to make sure that we turn around waiver requests as quickly as possible.”

• Levine was asked if there is evidence that social distancing is working in Pennsylvania. “We don’t have evidence yet in Pennsylvania. There has been evidence in other countries and perhaps in the first states that were hit, in California and Washington, that social distancing is effective. But again, there is weeks of lag time before you’re going to see that impact,” she said.