Coronavirus update: Philadelphia confirms community spread, anticipates surge in hospitals

A view of the Philadelphia skyline from the 52nd Street station on the Market-Frankford elevated line in West Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

A 2019 view of the Philadelphia skyline from the 52nd Street Station on the Market-Frankford Elevated line in West Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Updated 7:40 p.m.

To date, there are 96 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Pennsylvania, 267 in New Jersey, and 16 in Delaware.

Cynwyd Elementary School teacher tests positive for COVID-19

A fourth-grade teacher at Cynwyd Elementary School has tested positive for COVID-19, NBC 10 reports. According to the Lower Merion School District, the teacher is recovering at home. Students, staff, and family members who came in close contact with the teacher will be asked to go into quarantine.

“During this time when schools are closed and social distancing is being practiced, children should not be gathering for playdates, parties, sleepovers, or group outings,” the school district said in a letter to families.

The teacher is one of 34 cases of COVID-19 in Montgomery County, which has been the epicenter of the state’s coronavirus outbreak.

Philadelphia police pause arrests for low-level crimes

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw has instructed the department to immediately halt arrests for a slew of low-level criminal offenses, WHYY’s Billy Penn reports.

An internal memo obtained by Billy Penn and WHYY News states that crimes including narcotics activity, theft, burglary, prostitution, stolen automobiles, vandalism, and certain economic crimes will no longer automatically result in detention.

Exceptions may apply “if an officer believes that releasing the offender would pose a threat to public safety,” Outlaw wrote in the memo.

Pennsylvania loosens unemployment restrictions

The Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry is relaxing some restrictions for receiving unemployment compensation benefits.

The department has suspended the weeklong wait to start receiving benefits, and is temporarily waiving work search and work registration requirements.

People may also now be eligible for unemployment benefits if their employer temporarily closes, reduces their hours, or tells them not to work because of COVID-19.

Phillies pledge $1 million to assist ballpark workers

The Phillies announced on Tuesday that the team will give $1 million to assist more than 1,000 part-time and seasonal Phillies employees who are losing wages due to COVID-19.

The team is among 30 in Major League Baseball pledging financial assistance to ballpark workers.

On Monday, MLB said the season will be pushed back eight weeks in accordance with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation.

Pennsylvania Turnpike ends dining service, suspends cash and credit cards

The Pennsylvania Turnpike is halting fast food and inside dining services at all service plazas. Inside restrooms are closed, though portable toilets and hard-washing stations are available. Fuel pumps and convenient stores are open.

The Turnpike Commission has also suspended tollbooth stops. All tolls will be processed electronically through E-ZPass or the Toll By Plate program. Drivers without E-ZPass should use the “ticket” and “cash” lanes. Don’t stop at the tollbooth — just keep driving — and look for an invoice in the mail.

“We will return to normal toll-collection operations as soon as it becomes practical,” said Mark Compton, Turnpike CEO.

Amtrak shutting down lines in Pennsylvania

Amtrak is suspending its Keystone Service, which runs between Harrisburg and New York City, starting Wednesday.

Trains on the Pennsylvanian line, which runs between New York City and Pittsburgh, will stop starting Thursday.

Philadelphia addresses business, transportation, parking concerns

To address loss of business and employment, the City of Philadelphia is working with the state to improve unemployment compensation, SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families dollars, and other supports, said Brian Abernathy, managing director for the city, in a press conference on Tuesday.

“We recognize the unemployment rate is going to go very high very quickly,” Abernathy said, adding that certain sectors, like delivery services, are actively hiring right now.

Additional food access points will also be set up throughout the city, he said, with information to come later in the week. Schools have distributed 5,000 meals today at 30 locations. Recreation centers are also distributing meals.

Mayor Jim Kenney said the city is relying on the federal government to help with the economic impact of shutdown. This is a national issue “that will have to be nationally addressed, similar to World War II or the Depression,” he said. Congress is working on a relief package, and on Tuesday, the Trump administration expressed support for sending direct cash payments to Americans.

The city is continuing to work on delineating between essential and nonessential businesses, as well as which municipal employees are considered essential, Abernathy said. Those with questions should email vbeoc@phila.gov.

Philadelphia has not enforced business closures yet, as the city adjusts to shutdown. People can call 311 to report businesses violating the shutdown. The Pennsylvania attorney general is collecting complaints of price-gouging at pricegouging@attorneygeneral.gov.

SEPTA has reduced regional rail service by 25%, effective today, said Scott Sauer, SEPTA assistant general manager.

The city is softening parking restrictions. Time limits in residential zones, kiosks, and meters will not be enforced for the time being, said Scott Petri of the Philadelphia Parking Authority. However, he said, the agency will penalize “blatant violations that cause a threat to public safety or delay in emergency services being provided,” including vehicles in loading zones and crosswalks.

Additionally, Petri urged people to be mindful. “Don’t think of it as, ‘I now own this spot and I’m not moving,’” he said.

Pennsylvania Department of Health does not have comprehensive testing numbers 

As a result of COVID-19 testing becoming more distributed, the state’s health department does not have comprehensive results of the number of people who have been tested or the number of tests pending, said Rachel Levine, Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Health, in a press conference on Tuesday.

“We are now getting reports of test results from commercial and hospital laboratories, as well as our state laboratory,” Levine said.

The state will report new positive and negative cases once a day. Test results that come after midnight will be reported the following day.

So far, 879 patients have tested negative for COVID-19, Levine said on Tuesday.

The majority of positive cases can still be traced to the source of exposure, Levine said, but as the outbreak continues, this will become harder. She added that if hospitals are going to experience strain, it will start within the next two weeks.

Mass drive-through testing sites will soon open in Philadelphia and Montgomery counties. Both sites, as well as the state laboratory, will prioritize certain patients, including health care workers, seniors, and other vulnerable people.

Philadelphia confirms community spread, anticipates surge in hospitals

At a press conference on Tuesday, officials announced that the total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Philadelphia is 18. An additional 70 people have been tested and are pending results, and 114 people have been identified as medium- or high-risk contacts to known cases. Those people will be monitored at home.

Thomas Farley, Philadelphia’s health commissioner, said the virus is now spreading via community transmission. Some of the people who tested positive did not travel internationally and had no known or recognized contact to another known case.

Philadelphians should assume the virus is all over the city, Farley added. “Nobody should think it’s in that neighborhood and not in my neighborhood,” he said. “Everyone should assume it’s everywhere.”

If the virus continues to spread unchecked, “the health care system will be overwhelmed,” Farley said. In order to increase the number of beds available, elective surgeries have been cancelled, he added, and the city is also working on increasing total capacity.

The city is ramping up availability of testing. Rapid test sites have been set up by:

  • University of Pennsylvania: 1 site in West Philadelphia, 1 site in Radnor, PA
  • Temple: 1 site on main campus
  • Jefferson: 1 site in Center City, 1 site in Abington, PA
  • Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia: 1 site near West Philadelphia campus

Cumulatively, about 200 people were tested at these rapid test sites yesterday, Farley said, adding that more rapid and drive-through test sites will open soon.

Based on data from China, the most common symptoms of COVID-19 are a fever and dry cough, followed by excessive fatigue, Farley said. A runny nose and sore throat are uncommon among those who test positive for the virus. People with symptoms should contact the provider they last saw for care, in order to move patients through processing more quickly. All testing will be done at no cost to patients.

The city does not recommend testing for people without symptoms, Farley said. “Tests may be inaccurate up until the time you show symptoms,” he said. “You may have false negatives, to be specific.”

Pennsylvanians from Grand Princess repatriated with help of National Guard 

Thirty-eight Pennsylvania residents who were passengers on the Grand Princess cruise ship returned home Tuesday, after being quarantined at Dobbins Air Reserve Base, Georgia.

The group was flown to Harrisburg International Airport and individually driven by members of Pennsylvania’s National Guard to their homes throughout the state.

The National Guard will assist the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency with repatriation of the former cruise ship passengers. They have been determined to be asymptomatic, but will remain in isolation until test results are returned.

Swarthmore moves graduation, rest of the semester online

Swarthmore College has extended its period of modified operations and remote learning through the end of the spring semester. All campus activities have been canceled until May 31, including commencement, which will instead take place online.

“We are committed to developing a creative virtual alternative to this year’s ceremony,” said Valerie Smith, the college’s president, in a letter to the Swarthmore community.

The college will continue to provide housing and dining to students who have no other safe place to be.

The University of Pennsylvania has also announced it will hold its graduation ceremonies online this year.

Winterthur Point-to-Point canceled

Delaware’s Derby, the Point-to-Point Steeplechase, has been canceled for the first time since it began in 1979.

The horse racing event draws thousands each year. This year’s race was scheduled for May 3. Advance sales will be refunded.

“We understand the disappointment felt by all the spectators and riders,” said Carol B. Cadou, Winterthur’s CEO, “but our first priority is the health of the community.”

Suspension of public Catholic Masses in Philadelphia, Delaware and Maryland

Archbishop Nelson J. Pérez announced Tuesday that all public Masses in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, will be suspended until further notice, starting at noon on Wednesday, March 18.

“All of us need to do our part to slow the spread of this illness,” Pérez said in a press release.

Public Masses have also been canceled in the Diocese of Wilmington. Additionally, all diocesan and parish Catholic schools and religious education programs in Delaware and on Maryland’s Eastern Shore are closed or canceled for two weeks.

Chester Police Department is closing its building

The City of Chester has closed its police department building to the public, according to a message sent through the department’s app. The move is a part of the closure of all city government buildings to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.

“Any resident coming to the police department to make any type of report during this time will be unable to. This is to ensure the safety of our residents and our officers who will be here working 24/7 to protect and serve,” it reads.

To report a non-emergency, residents can call: 610-447-7931 ext. 2272.

The city’s announcement of a state of emergency also cautioned the public to expect more distancing when dealing with emergency personnel.

“Please do not be alarmed if Police, Fire or EMS personnel interact with you differently. Our first responders are taking extra precautions for your safety due to the number of people they interact with daily,” it said.

Chester regularly ranks as one of the most dangerous municipalities in the commonwealth, due to the high rate of violent crime for its size.

Maryland postpones primary

Maryland, which shares a primary date with Delaware and Pennsylvania, just postponed its 2020 Democratic primary election from April 28 to June 2 because of COVID-19. June 2 is when New Jersey votes.

Montgomery County suspends some court activity

The Pennsylvania county with the most confirmed cases of COVID-19, Montgomery County, plans to reopen its courts only to emergency proceedings on March 18. What counts as an emergency will be released on Montgomery County’s website on Wednesday. The courthouse hours will be limited to 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and the courts can be accessed only through the Main Street entrance.

The county’s magisterial courts will continue to hold arraignments and preliminary hearings, but only for defendants who are incarcerated.

Probation offices will also be closed and “supervision services will be handled using technology,” according to the release.

“The Court’s current emergency declaration has been extended to April 14, 2020” with all cases scheduled during this time canceled, according to an alert from Montgomery County’s emergency contact system.

Gov. Wolf enacts mitigation efforts for Pennsylvania 

Gov. Tom Wolf ordered the shutdown Monday of nonessential businesses and put out a statewide call for Pennsylvanians to do their part in halting the spread of COVID-19, echoing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation of cancelling gatherings of more than 10 people over the next eight weeks.

Eating and drinking inside restaurants and bars is temporarily prohibited, but businesses may continue to offer carry-out, delivery, and drive-through services.

Wolf asked nonessential businesses, including gyms, movie theaters, concert venues, salons, casinos, and shopping malls, to temporarily close, urging businesses to act now, before the state “finds it necessary to compel closures under the law.”

Loans and other resources from the Department of Community and Economic Development will be posted online as they become available. Statewide closures will be reevaluated in 14 days.

Essential government and medical services will continue, including police, fire, emergency medical and sanitation services. Pharmacies, grocery stores, health care facilities, and gas stations will stay open.

Wolf also identified these commercial services as essential: food processing, agriculture, industrial manufacturing, feed mills, construction, trash collection, auto and home repair, post office and shipping, insurance, banks, laundromats, veterinary clinics and pet stores, and hotels.

Other statewide mitigation efforts include:

  • Correctional facilities and nursing homes are not allowing visitors.
  • Freedom of travel will remain, but everyone is asked to refrain from nonessential travel.
  • All childcare centers licensed by the commonwealth are closed and will be re-evaluated in 14 days. Philadelphia families should check with their child care facilities to determine the status of business operations.
  • All K-12 Pennsylvania schools will be closed for 10 business days starting Monday, March 16.
  • The Department of Transportation closed all driver’s license and driver’s license photo centers. Expiring licenses, vehicle registrations, and inspections will be valid until the end of April.
  • State-run liquor stores will shut down at 9 p.m. on Tuesday.
  • Trails and parking areas at state parks and forests remain open, but all facilities at these parks will close for 14 days starting Tuesday.
  • Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court declared a statewide judicial emergency until April 14. County president judges can restrict or temporarily close court facilities.

Contributions to the article came from Laura Benshoff, Mark Eichmann and Steph Yin. 

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