Virus rapidly rising in Philadelphia

Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley has become a familiar face to many this year, as the city battles COVID-19.
PHOTO: Jack Tomczuk

COVID-19 cases are rapidly increasing in Philadelphia, and Health Commissioner Thomas Farley warned Tuesday that the city could be nearing “possibly the worst period of the entire epidemic.”

He told Philadelphians to put off seeing family for the holidays in November and December, as the skyrocketing numbers appear to be part of a surge that is expected to continue for months.

“We’re not going to get past this epidemic by Thanksgiving or by Hanukkah or by Christmas,” Farley said during a press briefing.

Last week, the city averaged 296 new cases a day, up from 205. It’s the highest weekly average since early May. The positive test rate has jumped to 7.2%, a level not reached since June.

Farley said the spike in infections has been documented among people across all ages and races and in every Philadelphia zip code.

On Tuesday, officials reported 340 new cases, 22 probable cases and five coronavirus-related deaths, raising the city’s toll to 1,864.

City leaders are considering reimposing some restrictions but have not made a final decision. Farley said limits will be tailored to target activities where it’s clear the virus is spreading.

“We will pay closer attention now to hospitalizations and deaths and not just cases when making our policy decisions,” Farley said.

Deaths have not experienced an uptick; however, Farley said he expects the city will begin noticing increases over the next couple of weeks.

There are about 211 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Philadelphia. Late last month, the average was about 90, and the peak occurred in April, when more than 1,000 virus patients were being treated at local hospitals at one time.

It appears the virus is still being spread primarily through private get-togethers of family and friends, Farley said.

Contact tracing, which the health department has deployed to track COVID-19, will likely have to be scaled back, due to the rising case count.

Farley said tracers are no longer able to get in touch with everyone who tests positive, and they have begun to ask people with the virus to call some of their contacts themselves.

Thanks to the increase in cases, Philadelphia has reached a threshold established by the Pennsylvania Department of Education to determine when schools should shift to virtual-only classes.

State officials have recommended that counties either experiencing 100 cases per 100,000 residents over a seven-day period or registering a positive test rate of 10% or higher implement completely remote instruction. Last week, Philadelphia surpassed the case-population ratio.

Farley said the city is not yet requiring or recommending that schools offering in-person classes move to a remote model.

So far, there’s been only one outbreak among K-12 students that appears to have spread in the classroom, officials said. It occurred at the Philadelphia School, an independent private school in Center City.

Two weeks ago, the School District of Philadelphia unveiled a plan to bring back face-to-face instruction for pre-K to second grade students at the end of November. Public schools in the city have been 100% virtual since the start of the academic year.