Pa. coronavirus update: Philly won’t require masks outdoors starting Friday

People wearing face masks as a precaution against the coronavirus walk in Philadelphia

People wearing face masks as a precaution against the coronavirus walk in Philadelphia, Wednesday, March 3, 2021. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Updated 2:53 p.m.

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Philadelphia’s Department of Public Health reports that the city’s 14-day average COVID-19 case count is down to 200. The weekly positivity rate has been below 5% since May 2.

There are currently 261 people being treated for COVID-19 in Philadelphia hospitals, and the city has reported 43 deaths in the past week.

“We’re not out of the woods yet, but we’ve seen clear improvement over the past few months as more and more Philadelphians received their vaccines, and I cannot stress enough, as we talk this morning, that the vaccines make us safe,” said Dr. Cheryl Bettigole, the city’s new acting health commissioner.

Bettigole: ‘Masks will no longer be required outdoors’

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made a splash when it announced last week that fully vaccinated people can go maskless both indoors and out.

On Wednesday, Bettigole categorized that announcement as “good news,” and said that the science behind the decision was sound. She believes that vaccinated people are now safe regardless of the decisions of others to put off the vaccine. Ultimately, she said, news of the vaccine’s effectiveness will only help rebuild the city’s social networks that are integral to life and health.

“But in a city that has seen disproportionate hospitalizations and deaths among our Black and brown residents, and in which only 21% of our younger Black residents between 20 and 44 have had at least one dose of vaccine compared to 49% of all residents, we can’t be satisfied that some of us are safe,” Bettigole said.

With that in mind, Philadelphia won’t go as far as the CDC, she said.

“This Friday, May 21, masks will no longer be required outdoors — including at outdoor gatherings, outdoor restaurants, and outdoor sports events and performances. You can go to a ballgame without a mask,” Bettigole said.

Masks will still be required indoors, but that policy could soon change as well.

During the week of June 6, the city will be taking a deep look at its data on the spread and mitigation of the coronavirus. Bettigole said that if case counts continued to plummet, the city would announce on June 11 that vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks inside most spaces in Philadelphia.

June 11 is also the date when all Safer at Home restrictions will come to an end.

As of Monday, May 17, more than 850,000 people had received at least a dose of a COVID-19 vaccine in Philadelphia. Bettigole largely attributed the plummeting coronavirus positivity rate to the region’s vaccination effort.

“If folks continue to get vaccinated and we see cases and hospitalizations continue to drop, fully vaccinated people can go back to normal, no masks, no restrictions, back to doing everything they’ve missed. If that’s not a reason to get vaccinated today, I don’t know what is,” Bettigole said.

Philadelphia’s announces new at-home vaccination effort

For the past several weeks, Philadelphia has been working to create an at-home vaccination program to reach vulnerable people who can’t make it to the city’s clinics.

With the help of multiple outreach organizations, the city is launching its own program for those who are homebound.

“To summarize, individuals can enroll in the Health Department’s registry, and then the Health Department will make referrals to approved COVID-19 vaccine providers that are able to provide in-home vaccination services. These providers will follow up directly with the contacts to schedule an in-home vaccination appointment,” said Jessica Caum, the department’s public health preparedness program manager.

Officials want to get this program off the ground as quickly as possible, but they said that depending on the demand, it may take a week or two to get an appointment.

The Philadelphia Fire Department is among the 20 or so vaccine providers that have expressed interest in offering support for the program. Six have already finished the process for receiving referrals through the program.

“We will continue to work with representatives from the disability community to ensure that this program meets the needs of this vulnerable community, and to ensure that best practices identified by one provider can be shared with all providers. People who are interested in registering themselves or persons in their care can visit phila.gov/COVID or call 215-685-5488,” Caum said.

‘Teen Week,’ and other vaccine incentives

The city is in the middle of “Teen Week,” a collaboration with the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium and the School District of Philadelphia that seeks to vaccinate students between the ages of 12 and 15, as well as those who were previously eligible.

With the help of the Philly Teen Vaxx ambassadors, the city has been holding vaccine clinics whose purpose is to increase turnout through fun activities and incentives.

“This past weekend, the city was passing out 76ers tickets and gave away hundreds of tickets as incentives to get these people vaccinated,” said Gail Carter-Hamilton, the Health Department’s pediatric resource manager.

Department officials signaled that additional incentives could be on the horizon, as they seem to be “very effective” at getting people to get vaccinated.

“We’re talking with partners about what might be possible … it’s certainly something that we think is a good idea,” Bettigole said.

On Farley’s departure

At Wednesday’s press conference, Bettigole largely avoided discussing the MOVE remains scandal that sent her predecessor as health commissioner packing, but she did offer her opinion on the impact Dr. Thomas Farley’s resignation would have on the city’s COVID-19 response.

“We lost somebody with tremendous experience and commitment to this COVID response, and I think we just need to acknowledge that: Dr. Farley undoubtedly saved thousands of lives here in Philadelphia. The other piece of it is that fortunately we have a tremendous team of people in the Health Department who are working on this response, and everybody is united in making sure that the response continues, and that it continues to be strong and effective,” Bettigole said.

She said she hasn’t given any thought to the possibility of being a candidate for the permanent health commissioner’s position.

Penn Medicine announces mandatory COVID-19 vaccination for all staff

The University of Pennsylvania Health System said Wednesday that it would require all employees and clinical staff to be vaccinated no later than Sept. 1. Starting in July, all new hires must show proof of vaccination.

“As an institution grounded in the science and art of health care, we believe it is imperative for the University of Pennsylvania Health System to take the lead in requiring employee vaccinations to protect our patients and staff and to set an example to the broader community as we work together to end the COVID-19 pandemic,” a Penn Medicine spokesperson said.

Staff members who are not able to be vaccinated because of medical and religious reasons have the option to apply for exemptions.

Currently, 70% of the employees and staff of the health care system are fully vaccinated — around 33,000 people. A spokesperson for Penn Medicine said that “evidence is clear” that the vaccines are safe and effective at preventing the spread of the virus, hospitalization and death.

“The transformational mRNA technology discoveries at Penn, which laid a foundation for the first COVID-19 vaccines, are a tremendous point of pride which further buoys our confidence in the science that is now being deployed to save lives across the globe,”  the spokesperson said.

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