HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Gov. Tom Wolf will announce Friday that more counties can see some of his tightest pandemic restrictions lifted, he said, as counties and lawmakers kept up pressure on him to ease up on his orders.
In a telephone news conference Thursday with reporters, Wolf said he will make his decision on Friday morning. However, he said he has not changed his criteria for deciding which counties can emerge from his stay-at-home order and his order for non-life-sustaining businesses to close.
His health secretary, Dr. Rachel Levine, echoed that, saying that the administration will continue to count cases in prisons, factories and nursing homes in a county's total.
That is bad news for counties such as Beaver and Huntingdon that blame much of their outbreak on a single institution, like a prison or nursing home, and remain under the governor's tightest restrictions.
“We are bending the curve, we are having some success and that is reflected in over half the counties that, as of tomorrow, will be open, and there will be more coming,” Wolf told reporters.
Critics, primarily Republicans, contend that Wolf is changing his goals over time, and say his shutdown orders are inflicting undue suffering and are no longer warranted. He has met his original goal of ensuring that hospitals did not become overwhelmed by a surge in extremely ill coronavirus patients, they say.
Instead, they say, Wolf's focus on a broad shutdown is misplaced since nursing homes and personal care homes for the elderly account for two-thirds of the state's more than 4,200 reported coronavirus deaths. In a growing chorus, Republicans and Democrats alike cite the opinions of doctors at health systems in Pennsylvania who say that the economy can safely reopen and co-exist with the virus.
Wolf agreed that Pennsylvania is “in a better place now." But, he said, he still has concerns with the availability of personal protective equipment and hospital capacity in some areas, and he still wants to see a flatter curve.
Wolf allowed 24 counties in northern Pennsylvania last week to emerge from his tightest restrictions and another 13 counties in western Pennsylvania to emerge starting Friday. That leaves another 30 counties, primarily in hard-hit eastern Pennsylvania, that are home to two-thirds of the state's 12.8 million people.
For now, nine counties that remain under Wolf's tightest restrictions meet one of his criteria of no more than 50 cases per 100,000 residents over the past 14 days. That includes York County, the state's eighth-most populous, and eight other largely rural and sparsely populated counties.
At least seven other Republican-controlled counties, including Beaver, Huntingdon and Lancaster, the state's seventh-most populous, have signaled that they will move to defy Wolf's orders starting Friday, even though they do not meet the criteria for new cases over the past 14 days.
Many of them say that Wolf's administration has been opaque in how it is making decisions and, on their own, they will consider at least some of Wolf's restrictions lifted, as long as businesses can adhere to state or federal safety measures.
With political tensions boiling, Wolf has sought to reach out to county officials this week after he suggested Monday that politicians encouraging people to defy his orders and "quit the fight are acting in a most cowardly way.” He also threatened to withhold aid from counties that do defy his orders.
Accusations have flown all week over who is politicizing the virus response. But Wolf said Thursday that politicizing it will hurt efforts to fight it.
“To the extent that we distract ourselves in any way, politicize it by trying to ... point fingers at something other than the virus, we're basically playing into the virus's hands here,” Wolf said.
In other coronavirus-related developments Thursday in Pennsylvania:
Confirmed cases of the coronavirus are approaching 60,000 in Pennsylvania, the state Department of Health reported Thursday.
The department reported 275 additional coronavirus deaths, with 44 of them newly recorded and the rest the result of an ongoing reconciliation of its own records with those of local agencies, hospitals and others over the past several weeks.
Philadelphia has surpassed 1,000 deaths alone, officials there said Thursday.
Health officials also reported 938 new infections.
The number of infections is thought to be far higher than the state’s confirmed case count because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick. There is no data on how many people have fully recovered.
In all, the department has recorded about 311,000 coronavirus tests administered in Pennsylvania. Although some people may have been tested multiple times, that figure is about 2.5% of the state's 12.8 million residents.
For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up in a couple of weeks. Older adults and people with existing health problems are at higher risk of more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death.
Associated Press reporter Claudia Lauer in Philadelphia contributed to this report. Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak