In a sweeping attempt to try to curb the spread of COVID-19, Gov. Tom Wolf on Thursday ordered a three-week closure of a wide range of businesses where people gather — indoor dining, bars, theaters, casinos and fitness centers.
“The situation we’re in is dire,” said Mr. Wolf, who tested positive for the disease Tuesday. “It’s not the government putting businesses at risk, it’s the virus. We’re not targeting anybody, the virus is.”
The shutdown starts at 12:01 a.m. Saturday and continues through 8 a.m. Jan. 4 and reflects similar curbs that were enacted Wednesday in Virginia and in Prince George’s County, Md., about 220 miles south of Pittsburgh, where indoor dining was banned and other business restrictions were implemented.
The curbs were enacted to push back against the highly contagious virus that has been ravaging Pennsylvania. A record number of COVID-19 deaths have been recorded for each of the past two days, and 11,972 new cases were reported Thursday, according to the state department of health.
Starting Saturday, all in-person dining at food service outlets, including private clubs and private catered events, will be banned while take out food and alcohol will be permitted. Indoor gatherings of more than 10 people are prohibited, except for churches, synagogues, temples, mosques and other places of worship. In-person businesses, such as retail stores, serving the public will be capped at 50% capacity.
Outdoor gatherings of more than 50 people will be included in the ban along with in-person extracurricular school activities and all sports for students in grades K-12. In-person attendance at collegiate and professional sporting events will be prohibited, but games can still be played, according to the governor’s order.
Hospitals, especially in the central and eastern parts of the state, have seen a sharp increase in the number of COVID-19 cases, including Montour County’s Geisinger Health System, which operates nine hospitals and has seen a tripling of COVID-19 patients in the past six weeks, president and CEO Jaewon Ryu said during the briefing with Mr. Wolf. The Danville-based health system has restricted non-emergency surgeries by between 10% and 50%, based of individual hospitals, because of the exploding number of cases.
The average number of daily positive COVID-19 tests administered within the system in the first two weeks of November was 200, which shot up to 340 in the second half of the month before jumping to 470 during the first week of December, Dr. Ryu said. Things weren’t expected to improve soon.
“The coming weeks are going to be difficult for us,” Dr. Ryu said. “The virus is truly out in the community.”
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and the county health director, Dr. Debra Bogen, did not comment on the new restrictions Thursday. But at a press conference Wednesday, they said new state limits were needed and they did not plan any further mitigation measures at the county level.
Despite the grim picture, the secretary of the state department of health, Dr. Rachel Levine, said she expected Pennsylvania to receive its first delivery of the COVID-19 vaccine next week.
But the first batch is not expected to go far, according to Heather Pierce, senior director for science policy and regulatory counsel at the Association of American Medical Colleges, a Washington, D.C.-based education and advocacy group who did not participate in the news conference.
The first shipment won’t be nearly enough to inoculate those who are first in line to get it — hospital doctors and nurses — Ms. Pierce said. Only after shipping logistics are perfected and a second vaccine gets approval from the Food and Drug Administration will there be enough vaccine for front-line health care workers and nursing home residents.
“No question that those on the front line, health care providers, will be the very first,” Ms. Pierce said. “That seems exactly the right place to start.”
The independent 23-member Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee met virtually Thursday and recommended granting emergency authorization of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, the first to reach that step. But supported by evidence of effectiveness in clinical trials of 95%, an endorsement by the committee and FDA is all but assured within days, allowing shipments to begin.
But here’s the problem: The federal government bought 100 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine earlier this year, but only 2.9 million doses will be ready for the first shipments nationwide due to ingredient supply issues, Ms. Pierce said. That’s enough for only about 1.45 million people because the vaccine requires two shots to be given weeks apart.
Pennsylvania’s total population is nearly 13 million.
The federal government will determine how much vaccine each state will get based on adult population — data that has not been released, Ms. Pierce said, but then states will have to decide which health care institutions get the first shots.
Pennsylvania has not disclosed its vaccine allocation plan.
“This is an extraordinary step, having a vaccine in this short of time is scientifically fantastic,” she said. “But we’re not out of the woods yet.”