Its pandemic authority weakened, the Wolf administration said Tuesday it has no plans to pursue another COVID-19 emergency declaration, or attempt to impose new statewide restrictions or vaccine mandates, in response to the highly contagious omicron variant that is spreading quickly and overloading Pennsylvania’s hospitals.
The Health Department is responding to the surge by pushing more residents to get vaccinated and taking steps to support hospitals hit by severe staffing shortages and a growing tide of COVID-19 patients. But “we are not considering further mitigation at this time,” Acting Secretary of Health Keara Klinepeter said at a news conference in Harrisburg.
Gov. Tom Wolf, in a separate appearance Tuesday, swatted away a question about the possibility of new restrictions by stressing that vaccines are his administration’s strategy for fighting the spread of COVID-19.
“We can can live lives a lot more freely than we could before and we don’t have to make the same harsh decisions we did two years ago. So we’re in a different place,” Wolf said on KDKA-AM radio in Pittsburgh.
By necessity, Wolf's approach to the virus — encouraging vaccination while trying to manage the consequences of rampant spread — has shifted from the early days of the pandemic, when he ordered schools to shut down for in-person instruction, issued a statewide stay-at-home order, closed businesses deemed “non-life-sustaining” and mandated masks to be worn in public.
Some of those tools are no longer available to him, either legally or politically, the result of fierce pushback by GOP lawmakers and pandemic-weary residents and business owners.
Last year, voters curbed the governor's emergency powers, and the state Supreme Court recently ended Wolf's masking order in schools and child care centers, saying it lacked legal justification after the Republican-controlled Legislature terminated Wolf’s COVID-19 emergency disaster declaration.
“I think certainly the constitutional authorities that the governor and that the secretary of health have are different at this time, and we’ve certainly heard people’s perspective that they would like to be able to make local decisions," Klinepeter said Tuesday. “And so that’s really what we’re leaning on, is for people in local places of authority to make good public health decisions.”
She said the administration is working to boost hospital staffing and beds in time for an expected February peak in hospitalizations.
Hospitals and nursing homes hit by severe staffing shortages have been sounding the alarm as largely unvaccinated COVID-19 patients strain capacity. Crozer Health said it is temporarily closing the emergency department at Springfield Hospital in Delaware County beginning Friday, and taking other steps to address severe staffing shortages.
“Our patient care resources have been strained due to the national nursing shortage and many colleagues out sick with COVID-19, echoing the challenges faced by other health systems locally and across the country,” said Peter Adamo, CEO of Crozer Health.
Statewide, new confirmed cases have spiked by 50% in a week, rising to 27,545 per day, according to weekly Health Department data released Tuesday. Klinepeter said cases are expected to peak this month.
More than 7,100 people are hospitalized with COVID-19, a pandemic record, and nearly a third of all patients in intensive care units have the disease. Deaths have risen by more than a third in two weeks, averaging about 127 per day.