- Associated Press - Monday, November 9, 2020

As new coronavirus cases explode, Pennsylvania’s top health official on Monday warned the state is at a “critical point” in the pandemic and begged recalcitrant residents to wear masks, avoid congregating and take other simple preventative measures to slow the spread.

Infections, hospitalizations and the percentage of virus tests coming back positive continue to climb sharply, according to state data reported Monday, indicating the virus is spreading more rapidly than at any point since the beginning of the pandemic.

No region of Pennsylvania has been spared, with 38 of 67 counties reporting substantial levels of community transmission.

“COVID-19 is right here and we are at a critical point,” the state health secretary, Dr. Rachel Levine, said at a news conference in Harrisburg. “We all need to take steps to prevent the spread of this virus and if we don’t, we put ourselves, our families, and our communities and our health systems at risk.”

Pennsylvania has reported 6,311 new virus cases over the past 48 hours. Cases are up more than 70% in the past two weeks, to an average of nearly 3,000 new cases per day, and Pennsylvania’s test positivity rate is up 40% over the same period, according to The COVID Tracking Project.

The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Pennsylvania stood at 1,735 on Monday, up from 1,267 a week ago, said Levine.

The state’s death rate is also rising, though not nearly as quickly, and it remains far below what it was in the spring as medical treatments have gotten better and patients skew younger. But Levine predicted that with spiking case counts and hospitalizations, “we will see an increasing number of deaths.” She pointed to sharply higher death rates in states like Wisconsin and the Dakotas.

“This a sobering look at our current reality,” she said.

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has imposed restrictions on bars and restaurants, limited indoor and outdoor gatherings, and mandated the wearing of masks in public, but the measures have not prevented Pennsylvania’s numbers from going in the wrong direction amid the national surge. Cases are rising in 48 states.

Republicans have pushed back strongly against many of the Wolf administration’s efforts to tamp down the virus, viewing them as governmental overreach, and mask-wearing remains spotty in many rural and GOP areas. President Donald Trump racked up huge vote margins in counties with the some of the state’s highest per-capita infection and test positivity rates.

Levine urged people to wear masks, saying they are “not a partisan issue” and that putting one on is “not a political statement, it’s a public health measure.” She also lamented that fewer people are returning contact tracers’ calls and answering questions about whether they’d spent time at a business or attended a mass gathering, hindering the state’s efforts to track the virus.

Social distancing has been a challenge on both sides of the political spectrum, with crowds forming in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Harrisburg to celebrate or protest Saturday after Democrat Joe Biden was declared the victor.

Philadelphia’s Department of Public Health recommended Monday that people who took part in an election protest or celebration quarantine for 14 days.

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