Pa. coronavirus update: Farley says pandemic ‘returning to where it began a year ago’

Philadelphia Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley says COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are rising significantly.

People wearing face masks wait in line to receive COVID-19 vaccines

People wearing face masks as a precaution against the coronavirus wait in line to receive COVID-19 vaccines at a site in Philadelphia, Monday, March 29, 2021. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Updated 5:15 p.m.

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Philadelphia officials have identified 713 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday — which is a dramatic increase from last week.

For the week of March 21 to March 27, Philadelphia averaged 488 new confirmed cases per day for a positivity rate of 6.8%. During the week prior, the city averaged 427 cases.

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These statistics prompted Philadelphia Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley to issue a dire warning Tuesday:

“Those numbers of cases per day is approximately doubled in the past month,” Farley said. “Cases are not just here in Philadelphia, but they’re rising all around us. All across the United States and matter of fact, and they’re particularly high in New Jersey and New York, so the epidemic appears to be returning to where it began a year ago.”

As case numbers rise, hospitalizations are also increasing in the city. On Monday, 429 people were hospitalized in Philadelphia with COVID-19, which is in stark contrast to March 7 when 203 people were in hospitals with the virus.

Additionally, the city identified eight new deaths on Tuesday, bringing the total to 3,359 since the start of the pandemic. Philadelphia is now averaging 25 to 30 deaths per day.

“We’re going to watch this number very closely to see if it rises, or if the vaccinations that we’re doing can keep the deaths down, even as the cases rise — which is we hope what would happen,” Farley said.

Currently, hospitals are not overwhelmed, but city health officials are concerned. Some of their worries stem from a recent report from the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine on the spread of virus variants.

Researchers found that more than one-third of COVID-19 infections from the Philly area were one of the “concerning variants.”

According to Farley, the variant of concern is mostly the one that was first discovered in the United Kingdom, which has shown the ability to spread faster.

“It’s unclear if this variant is a cause or an effect of these rising rates. But it is clear that this is a new wave of the epidemic across the United States, and that this virus has and will continue to surprise us,” Farley said.

The surge in cases has Farley emphasizing the need to get the vaccine to some of the most vulnerable populations.

“So we need to get as many people, who are over the age of 65, as possible vaccinated now to prevent deaths,” Farley said.

Philly vaccine rollout picking up steam

Despite the troubling news of case rates and hospitalizations, the vaccine rollout is picking up steam.

“For the week that ended March 28, we had 111,000 doses administered across all providers across the city so far and even that data is incomplete. That’s our highest number so far. The number was 50,000 doses administered on a weekly basis in February, so it’s more than doubled in just a short time,” Farley said.

As of Tuesday, Health Department data shows that 251,818 people in the city are fully vaccinated and 515,138 people in the city have received at least one dose of a vaccine, which is about 23% of all Philadelphians, according to Farley.

“We also know that that’s an underestimate, because some people from Philadelphia were vaccinated outside of the city and we don’t have that data in our databases,” Farley said.

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Those numbers are even higher for Philadelphia’s older population. Farley says that 52% of people aged 56 to 74 and 72% of people over the age of 75 have received at least one dose.

“Now those numbers are not enough to change the direction of this epidemic wave that we’re going through right now, but they are enough to prevent some deaths from COVID,” Farley said.

However, the Health Department is currently reaching out to vaccine providers to double down on ensuring that older Philadelphians receive access to the vaccine.

This includes devising a plan for walk-in clinics and fast-tracked access to the vaccine.

Even with the vaccine rollout getting more efficient, there is one hurdle.

“We continue to get very little information about future dose allocations for any of these vaccines, so we will be having limitations on the Johnson & Johnson dose, but we will distribute what we have available to us,” Farley said.

Philly to begin Phase 2 vaccinations by May

Philadelphia plans to begin vaccinating people in Phase 2 no later than May 1, officials said.

Farley says residents can expect an update later this week on when Philadelphia will move to Phase 1C.

The city currently has 226 vaccine provider sites. This is up from 200 such sites last week, according to Farley.

The city is still operating in Phase 1B, which is for people aged 65 and over, qualified essential workers, and people with certain pre-existing medical conditions.

The federally-supported site at the Convention Center is currently administering second doses of the Pfizer vaccine and will be doing that for two more weeks. After that, the site will be offering the Johnson & Johnson vaccine for the last two weeks of its originally scheduled run. Health department officials project that 84,000 additional people will be fully vaccinated through that avenue.

It is still unclear whether the site will remain operating after its eight-week run.

“We have requested for the federal government to have it stay longer, and we don’t have an answer yet as to whether that’s possible,” Farley said.

Although it’s future is undecided, the Convention Center will be getting some company in the form of another federally supported Type 2 Site.

“That is a high-volume site that is not quite the volume of the site at the Convention Center that will start either late next week or early the following week,” Farley said.

It will be located near the Esperanza Academy Charter High School at 5th Street and Hunting Park Avenue, which is in the Hunting Park area.

The site’s location is of great interest to the Health Department.

“It also is at the center of the area of the city where we have the most under vaccinated zip codes,” Farley said. “In addition that site provides easy access to a large Hispanic population in the city. We know that Hispanics are the most under vaccinated group in the entire city.”

Farley expects the site to vaccine at least 1,000 people per day during its eight-week stint.

Extra week to apply for hospitality industry relief

Philadelphians in the hospitality industry can still apply for relief.

“The deadline for businesses to apply to the Pennsylvania COVID-19 Hospitality Industry Recovery Program, or CHIRP, has been extended one extra week. The new deadline for businesses to submit their application is 11:59 p.m. on Monday, April 12,” Mayor Jim Kenney said. “So there are now about two weeks left to apply.”

More information about the program can be found here.

Pa. updates school recommendations in line with CDC

In order to match the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, the Wolf administration has announced that students can now stand three feet apart.

“However, in counties where substantial transmission continues to occur, middle and high school students should be six feet apart unless cohorting is possible,” said Dr. Wendy Braund, the state’s COVID-19 Response Director.

Under previous guidance, the required distance between students was six feet. Under these new recommendations, there are several instances where six feet of physical distancing should be maintained.

“These include between adults in the building, and between adults and students, when masks can’t be worn, such as when eating, during activities where increased exhalation occurs, such as singing, shouting, band, sports or other physical activity. These activities should occur outdoors or in large well ventilated spaces. And the last is in common areas, such as school lobbies and auditoriums,” Braund daid.

Additionally, the new guidance from the state gives schools updated directions on how to deal with COVID-19 cases.

For example, the length of in-person learning closures in some cases has also been reduced. A full list of scenarios can be found here.

“We recognize the critical importance of in-person instruction, and hope that this step, along with updates to our recommendations for responding to positive COVID-19 cases will foster greater flexibility for school communities as they serve students each day,” said. Matthew Stem, a deputy secretary in the state’s Education Department.

The summer camp guidance is mostly unchanged from last summer’s guidance.

“In general, the summer camp guidance doubles down on the importance of health and safety plans being in place in our summer camp type programs, and it also talks about the importance of following all the mitigation strategies listed in the CDC suggestions for youth in summer camps,” Stem said.

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