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Positive COVID-19 cases in Philly climb to 3, with 62 more tests pending

Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley answers questions at the city's daily coronavirus briefing at the Fire Administration Building on Friday, March 13, 2020. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley answers questions at the city's daily coronavirus briefing at the Fire Administration Building on Friday, March 13, 2020. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The tally of positive cases of COVID-19 in Philadelphia has risen to three. The first case, reported Tuesday, was a man in his 50s who had traveled internationally to an affected area. The second case, released today, is a woman who is a close contact of the first case. The third case, also confirmed today, is another person who traveled internationally to an affected area. None of the cases are severe, and all three people are in isolation at home.

Tests are pending for 62 additional people in the city. Though that number is growing, Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said testing more people is not necessarily a sign that more people are feeling sick.

“As testing becomes more available, we will be testing more people,” he said.

Farley confirmed that testing has been slow, due to a limited availability of test kits and the chemicals used to test for the virus. Right now, test results come back in about 48 hours from the state lab. For tests done at private labs, it takes a little longer — closer to 3-5 days. But a  state Health Department spokesperson said that the state lab can do 100 tests a day, and that there is currently no backlog.

As of Friday, the state guidance for testing is that individuals with fever over 100 degrees and dry cough should call their doctors to see if their symptoms warrant the test. Those who have those symptoms but do not have a primary care physician should call their local emergency department.

Philadelphia City Council announced it would cancel its full meeting for next Thursday.

The Philadelphia School District announced it would shut schools for the next two weeks, after neighboring Montgomery County closed its schools and asked staff to self-quarantine. Many Philadelphia School District employees live in Montgomery County. As of Friday afternoon, the total number of cases in Pennsylvania was 41, with 31 of those in Philadelphia or its suburbs.

Just before the announcement that city schools would close, both Farley and Philadelphia Managing Director Brian Abernathy advised against it.

Philadelphia Managing Director Brian Abernathy answers questions at the city’s daily coronavirus briefing at the Fire Administration Building on Friday, March 13, 2020. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“I don’t want to sugarcoat this: If we close our schools, we have a huge problem,” said Abernathy. “The city is currently prepared to meet those needs, but I don’t want to underestimate the challenges that feeding 200,000 kids is gonna take.”

Abernathy added that, at this time, the city did not plan to stop services such as trash collection.

The Philadelphia Department of Prisons has not limited visitation, as the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections has done, but Abernathy said the department may revisit that policy next week. The city also announced new guidance for long-term care facilities, which house some of Philadelphia’s most vulnerable residents.

Farley offered a general hotline number for those with questions about the virus. It’s run in partnership with Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Poison Control Center, and anyone can call: 1-800-722-7112.

Advance planning

In China and South Korea, which had the highest number of COVID-19 cases, the World Health Organization has attributed success in containing the virus to a coordinated health care plan that tested aggressively and housed infected patients in hospital or other designated settings outside of the home, to avoid spreading the disease within families or apartment buildings.

Farley reiterated that because hospitals in the city have limited capacity to accommodate a surge of patients made ill by the virus, his department is actively working to secure extra space to treat or quarantine individuals. The Health Department has been in conversation with Joel Freedman, the owner of Hahnemann University Hospital, about using the empty building if needed. The 495-bed safety-net hospital closed its doors last summer.

“Broad Street Healthcare Properties and Mr. Freedman told the city they would be honored to assist the community and offered their help to the city should it be necessary for the shuttered medical center to be used in this health care crisis,” Sam Singer, a representative for Broad Street Healthcare Properties, said in an email. The beds and medical equipment at Hahnemann were auctioned off as a part of the bankruptcy of the hospital’s parent company,  but Singer said the situation could be addressed.

“Mr. Freedman and his company are standing by to be of assistance if called upon to help the city and community,” Singer said, adding that no details about cost to the city had been discussed.

Farley said, however, that no one who has tested positive for the virus in Philadelphia needs an alternative space at the moment.

“The people who have been affected so far are typically people who have traveled internationally or those closely associated with them,” he said. “These are people who have resources.”

The city also issued guidance for people at home — both those in isolation because they are sick, and those who are not sick but are in self-quarantine at home because they fear they were exposed to the virus. Right now, there are roughly 1,000 people in self-quarantine in Philadelphia. That number includes people who were instructed to stay home and be monitored by the Health Department if they had traveled to any foreign country where the disease was present.

Farley added that though nothing is up and running yet, his department is in conversation with a number of hospitals working on drive-through testing models similar to the one ChristianaCare offered Friday in Delaware.

Abernathy said there were no current plans to reduce SEPTA service.

“Right now, we feel it’s safe to take public transit, and the city depends on it,” he said, although he did advise against too much movement from business to business, such as bar-hopping on St. Patrick’s Day.

“If I had my druthers, the Erin Express would be canceled,” said Abernathy, referring to the Philadelphia tradition that transports beer drinkers from bar to bar on St. Patrick’s Day.

Though the bus ride has been canceled, the bar-hopping is still planned. Abernathy advised Philadelphians to drink at home instead.

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