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A day of chilling milestones: New Jersey coronavirus deaths surpass the number lost in 9/11 terrorist attacks

Gov. Phil Murphy (New Jersey National Guard/Flickr)

The coronavirus continued its deadly march across Pennsylvania and New Jersey on Saturday, turning counts of the sick and the dead from agonizing to chilling:

More New Jerseyans have died from the coronavirus than in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Gov. Phil Murphy said.

The number of the state’s residents who lost their lives to coronavirus-related complications — including an additional 200 on Saturday — stands at 846, nearly 100 more than died in the terrorist assault, an event that shook and shocked the nation and forever changed aspects of American life.

“This pandemic is writing one of the greatest tragedies in our state’s history,” Murphy said, pausing for a moment of silence.

He directed residents to continue to stay home, to try to slow the virus by avoiding contact with others, which included forgoing in-person religious services and gatherings during the Easter, Passover, and Ramadan holidays.

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“If we all do our part, there is no question in my mind we will win this war,” Murphy said.

But victory seemed distant on a day of hard, numeric milestones. The number of cases neared 1.2 million worldwide. Deaths in the United States passed 8,000. Confirmed positives topped 300,000.

In Bucks County, a beloved assistant fire chief lost his life to the virus. In hard-hit Montgomery County, a 500-member outfit of medical-care providers and volunteers was scheduled to arrive Sunday, to boost the county’s “surge capacity” as available hospital beds dwindled.

ICE officials in Philadelphia confirmed five COVID-19 cases in two Pennsylvania immigrant detention centers – long identified by migrant advocates as sites of potential outbreaks.

People searched for signs of hope. And savored slices of the familiar, like in South Jersey, where a long-running science fair went on as scheduled, albeit remotely.

U.S. Postal Service workers now are asking for hazard pay to do work that seems newly threatening, starting a petition that surpassed 360,000 signatures Saturday morning. Workers at the Bustleton Station and Newtown Square post offices have tested positive, and the national total stood at 293 confirmed cases among 630,000 postal employees.

New Jersey officials reported that an additional 4,331 residents had tested positive for the virus, for a total of 34,124. Pennsylvania’s confirmed cases rose again overnight, by 1,597, to more than 10,000, and 34 more people died, raising that toll to 136.

In Philadelphia the trend was similar: The Department of Public Health announced 578 new cases, bringing the total to 3,008, and nine more died, raising that count to 35. In the city, clusters continued to occur in nursing homes, behavioral-health facilities, and in prisons, where eight more inmates tested positive, bringing the total to 39.

At a Saturday news conference, Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine urged residents to continue to practice social distancing, and to follow the state’s new guidance to wear masks when they go outside.

State officials are trying to limit a surge in cases that could overwhelm hospitals, and “in a lot of ways, it’s up to you,” she told the public.

Of the 10,017 Pennsylvanians who have tested positive, 1,004 have been hospitalized, with 276 requiring intensive care and 170 needing ventilators, Levine said.

Flags in Bucks County were lowered to half-staff to mourn the death of Rick Johnson, assistant chief of the Tullytown Fire Company.

“Our county has suffered its first loss of a first-responder to COVID-19,” officials posted on Facebook. “The county commissioners mourn this loss of life and all other that have and will be suffered during the pandemic.”

On Friday night firefighters from the company had gathered outside the hospital where Johnson was being treated, wanting to show him their love and support.

“This is the only way we could be in contact with him,” one firefighter said in a video. “Whether he can see out the window or not is not important to us. We know that he knows we’re here.”

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© 2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer