Pennsylvania reported its highest number of confirmed coronavirus infections in more than five months on Thursday, with the governor expressing concern but contending the state is in a much better position now to handle the influx than it was at the beginning of the pandemic.
The Department of Health said another 1,376 people tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19, the second consecutive day that new infections rose above 1,300. Thursday’s statewide case count was the highest since April 30, when Pennsylvania recorded 1,397 new infections.
Mercer County had 12 new cases in the Thursday report, the highest single-day increase since Sept. 17, when the Health Department reported 21 new cases. With a report of one fatality, the county's death toll increased Thursday, to 24.
The average daily number of new confirmed cases is up by more than 36% over the past two weeks, according to The COVID Tracking Project. And a greater percentage of tests are coming back positive.
Health officials cite increased spread among college and university students. Penn State University alone has reported nearly 3,000 positive virus tests at its main campus in State College, and surrounding Centre County currently leads Pennsylvania in the number of infected people per capita.
“I am very concerned” about the spike in infections, Gov. Tom Wolf said at a news conference Thursday, but “we’re at a different place in terms of how we can address it.”
He said hospitals have plenty of capacity, the state has large stockpiles of personal protective equipment, and testing and tracing has been expanded. He also asserted that more people are complying with a statewide mask mandate.
“More and more Pennsylvanians are making up their minds to wear a mask," Wolf said. "We've become pretty good at it in Pennsylvania, and that's making a difference, I think. A big difference.”
Pennsylvania reported 27 more deaths, raising the statewide toll to 8,299. The average daily number of deaths has been relatively stable for months after peaking in May.
In other coronavirus-related developments in Pennsylvania on Thursday:
Utility shutoffs to resume
Pennsylvania is lifting its blanket moratorium on utility shutoffs, despite an earlier pledge to keep it in place for the duration of the pandemic.
The state Public Utility Commission announced Thursday that utilities may disconnect electric, gas, water and other utility services for some customers beginning Nov. 9. In March, the commission said that no utility may terminate service so long as the governor’s disaster emergency declaration remained in effect. Wolf has not lifted the emergency order.
“The moratorium on utility service terminations was the right decision to make in March, but the moratorium cannot be the sole solution for assisting vulnerable utility customers,” Gladys Brown Dutrieuille, the commission chairperson, wrote in a motion to amend the moratorium.
In place of a total ban on utility shutoffs, the regulatory commission enacted safeguards that it said would protect small businesses and residential customers hit hardest by the economic downturn.
Under the new rules, households whose incomes fall within 300% of the federal poverty level — which translates into $78,600 per year for a family of four — will remain protected from termination, officials said. The commission typically imposes a winter moratorium on utility shutoffs for households earning less than 250% of federal poverty guidelines.
Utilities must also offer payment plans for past-due balances to small business customers, and take other steps to help customers maintain utility service, the commission said.