Philadelphia officials refute Trump’s comments, call on federal government for help

Philadelphia Medical Reserve Corps volunteers (from left) Megan Boyle, Marina Spitkovskaya, Jamie Huot, and Stephen Bonett, all of whom are nurses, walk to the swabbing tent as the city's coronavirus testing site prepared to open next to Citizens Bank Park in South Philadelphia on Friday, March 20, 2020. (Tim Tai/The Philadelphia Inquirer)

Philadelphia Medical Reserve Corps volunteers (from left) Megan Boyle, Marina Spitkovskaya, Jamie Huot, and Stephen Bonett, all of whom are nurses, walk to the swabbing tent as the city's coronavirus testing site prepared to open next to Citizens Bank Park in South Philadelphia on Friday, March 20, 2020. (Tim Tai/The Philadelphia Inquirer)

Updated 6:52 p.m.

In the wake of comments by President Trump yesterday, suggesting that social distancing measures could be lifted in 15 days, Health Commissioner Tom Farley doubled down on the risk posed by COVID-19.

“This infection could affect any of us,” he said. “For most people, the infection will be mild or moderate, and they will recover. But the disease can be serious and it can be fatal … for anyone at any age. We know that there’s no cure for this infection, and that there’s no vaccine for this infection right now.”

Farley warned most cases in the city will go untested, meaning that people should assume that anyone they come in contact with could be infected. Health experts recommend keeping a distance of at least six feet to avoid infection. Doing so, Farley said, could slow the spread of COVID-19 — not enough to stop the pandemic, but enough to shore up valuable medical resources.

As for how long social distancing measures will need to continue? In contradiction to President Trump’s 15-day timeline, Farley says we can’t know for sure.

“It’s really very hard to predict,” Farley said. “I don’t think anyone knows. I can say this though — based on the experience of other countries, if we do this right, then maybe, maybe within two to four weeks, we can see evidence of slowing of the epidemic wave.”

Mayor Kenney said Philadelphia will follow the advice of Health Commissioner Farley, not that of President Trump.

“I’m going to listen to the medical community in Philadelphia and the region, and we’re going to do what they say we should do,” Kenney said. “Not follow down a road, that the president seems to be leading everyone on, that somehow this is going to magically go away. It’s not magically going to go away.”

Kenney also called on more support from the federal government.

“We cannot do this by ourselves,” Kenney said. “The federal government needs to get its act together and vote on something substantial.”

Philly reports 77 new cases

Philadelphia reported 77 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday afternoon, bringing the city’s tally to 252, according to Health Commissioner Tom Farley.

“Our daily number is a little bit less than it was yesterday,” Farley said, referring to the 79-case jump between Sunday and Monday, “but still the overall trend is increasing rapidly, and we expect that to continue to do so for at least the next week or so.”

Nearly half of the confirmed cases, 122, are adults between the ages of 20-39; 64 are over the age of 60; 56 are between the ages of 40-59; and 10 are under the age of 20.

Only 23 of the people affected have been hospitalized — most of them on the older end of the spectrum.

“The people with this infection tended to be young adults, but the people who were hospitalized tended to be older adults,” Farley said.

Twenty-five of the known cases are health care workers, a group that Farley said are at the highest risk of infection.

Testing availability and guidelines

Testing is available through most hospitals and other large health care providers, Farley said, but is limited because of the availability of test kits and laboratories’ testing capacity. Testing is available with a referral from most health care providers, though Farley said providers have their own criteria for who they’re going to test.

The city is recommending testing for people who have symptoms and are health care workers, or are over the age of 50. More specific guidance, along with information on how to get tested, is available at phila.gov/covid. Farley says testing criteria is likely to change as the situation evolves.

Philadelphia has opened a testing site next to Citizens Bank Park that’s open daily from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. (The site will be closed tomorrow, Wednesday, March 25, due to weather.) The testing site is open to the public, but has strict eligibility requirements, based on the city’s aforementioned guidance.

Pa. attempts to temper panic-buying

State officials are urging Pennsylvanians to be “more measured” in their grocery shopping, as a surge in need, combined with panic-buying, puts pressure on emergency food programs.

“The unnecessary panic-buying, emptying of shelves, is causing serious supply chain challenges for the retail stores, our regional food banks and the local food pantries,” said Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding at a briefing on Tuesday. “There is no food shortage.”

But Redding said there is an increasing number of Pennsylvanians in need of food assistance. Though the state doesn’t have exact numbers, it clocked an additional 240,000 applications for unemployment compensation last week, along with a 23% increase in applications through COMPASS, an online service that connects Pennsylvania’s with SNAP benefits.

“An increasing number of Pennsylvanians in need of food assistance, for themselves and their families, are depending on the Charitable Food Assistance Network across Pennsylvania,” Redding said. “As a result, there is not enough food at the ready for regional food banks to easily ramp up and serve the rapidly increasing need.”

Officials say that they’re working to maintain the usual production and distribution chains for grocery stores, emphasizing that panic-buying has had a major impact on available food.

“We produce enough food for everyone,” Redding said. “If everyone returns to normal buying habits, buying only what they need for a week or two, this will allow the stores and the food banks a chance to catch up.”

Despite pressures, officials say they’re continuing to process and accommodate requests for food assistance.

“We are doing everything we can to ensure that people who need food assistance and qualify for SNAP  can continue to use this vital resource,” said Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller.

Miller says the Department of Human Services will continue to process applications, and urged residents to continue sending in paperwork as usual.

She added that they will ensure that SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] benefits continue even for those who are not able to submit paperwork, complete interviews, or provide verification of information.

Pennsylvanians can apply for SNAP online at www.compass.state.pa.us. Emergency SNAP applications can be expedited and issued in five days.

Miller added that the department is also expecting to issue an additional SNAP payment to assist households in complying with the Center for Disease Control’s recommendation of maintaining two weeks’ worth of food.

Anyone who needs help accessing food assistance can visit Feeding Pennsylvania and Hunger-Free Pennsylvania.

The state is also asking for healthy Pennsylvanians to volunteer at their local food bank or register for the State Emergency Registry of Volunteers in Pennsylvania.

Organizations that need volunteers or resources can seek assistance at the United Way of Pennsylvania’s 211 website.

Businesses with resources to help feed and shelter Pennsylvanians in need are being asked to fill out this survey. Pennsylvanians in need of food assistance can complete this survey to help direct resources.

Child care centers say coronavirus has them on brink of shutting

A coalition of Pennsylvania child care providers called for major new public subsidies Tuesday, saying many are on track to close permanently due to losses stemming from the coronavirus shutdown.

Most child care providers were shuttered by Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration last week, though those that care for children of “essential” workers like doctors and grocery store clerks can apply for a waiver to remain open.

A new survey by the Pennsylvania Childcare Association of 605 providers shows that nearly one-third of respondents expect to never reopen again if the statewide shutdown lasts for more than a month.

Advocates are now calling for state lawmakers to allocate more than $150 million in financial support for child care providers as part of any state stimulus package.

“The economy is dependent on the child care sector being up and ready to take children,” said Jen DeBell, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association for the Education of Young Children. “So we are raising a red flag to the legislature today to say: ‘If you overlook the investments needed to sustain this sector, you will face trouble in the ability to enable people to get back to work.’”

Gov. Wolf’s administration has already committed to paying state subsidies to providers who care for kids enrolled in Child Care Works — a state program that helps low-income families — through April 30, regardless of whether they are open.

Tiffaney Hobbs runs Children of Destiny Learning Center and Children of Destiny Learning Academy in southwest Philadelphia. She closed her facilities — which together care for 127 kids — last Tuesday in response to the state’s order, and has since made the difficult decision to not pursue a waiver to reopen.

“Knowing the different health risks that were involved, and to ensure the safety of the staff as well as the kids, we did decide to shut down,” Hobbs said. “It was very hard.”

Hobbs says she and her staff have been making videos for their kids, as well as dropping off care packages of snacks and play-dough — little things to show their families they haven’t forgotten them.

But keeping that up will be increasingly difficult without more income. Hobbs said right now she thinks she’ll be able to pay her staff for the next month,  but after that, she just doesn’t know. She’s written letters to U.S. Senator Robert Casey Jr. and Rep. Mary Scanlon asking for help.

“I’m not very political,” she said. “But [these are] desperate times.”

Lawsuit urges freeing ‘medically vulnerable’ in ICE detention

The American Civil Liberties Union is suing for the release of immigrants at high risk of contracting the coronavirus while in U.S. immigration detention in Pennsylvania jails.

The thirteen plaintiffs are held in local correctional facilities in Clinton, Pike and York Counties, and suffer from a variety of underlying conditions, including asthma, cancer and diabetes.

The lawsuit, filed against the wardens of the county jails as well as federal officials, describes conditions where the virus is likely to spread — where detainees have limited access to soap, or sleep in rooms with dozens of bunk beds packed together, only an arm’s length apart.

“This situation is so dangerous for our elderly and medically vulnerable clients that ICE is violating the Constitution by continuing to detain them,” said Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

Federal authorities may release immigrants in their custody for medical reasons. Similar lawsuits were also filed today on behalf of detainees in Maryland, Massachusetts and California, and add to a growing chorus of calls to release both low-level criminal offenders and immigrants who have committed civil offenses during the global pandemic.

In New Jersey, county jail and detention center staff are among the confirmed cases of COVID-19 and the first known case of an ICE detainee contracting the virus was announced in Bergen County on Tuesday. Local reports describe the man as a 31-year-old Mexican national.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement did not immediately return requests for comment.

Pa. braces for surge in COVID-19 cases; Levine warns of overwhelmed health care system

As COVID-19 continues to spread, Pennsylvania is preparing its health system for a surge in cases, said Pennsylvania Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine in a briefing Tuesday.

“We’ll see if the numbers continue to rise, but there is every reason to believe that this increase will continue and rise exponentially,” Levine said. “It remains a public health crisis and an epidemic — it’s a pandemic.”

Pennsylvania reported 207 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday morning — compared with an increase of 165 cases the day before —  bringing the state total to 851 confirmed cases.

Levine said that around 10% of Pennsylvanians who’ve tested positive for COVID-19 since March 6 have required hospitalization. Seven have died.

So far, COVID-19 has been found in 40 counties, and is especially concentrated in the southeast, Levine said. Only eight counties have received a stay-at-home order, but Levine says that could change soon.

“We do expect to see the spread of COVID-19 to rural areas and really throughout Pennsylvania,” she said. “If necessary, the governor will take all precautions to try to prevent the spread of COVID-19. So we’re going to reevaluate that every day.”

Pennsylvania is currently working with hospitals, health systems, and health care coalitions to expand the state’s patient care capacity.

“We’re working to repurpose ambulatory surgical facilities so that they can take care of less-acute patients,” Levine said. “We’re actually even looking at hotels to take care of post-acute patients as they convalesce.”

The Department of Health is also working to increase staffing and supplies — including ventilators, masks and other protective personal equipment, some of which Pennsylvania is receiving from the federal government.

“There are what are called ‘crisis standards of care’ that allow hospitals to deal with surges,” Levine said. “So, all of that is happening at the same time.”

Levine says the public can help by donating blood – which could be in short supply in the event of a major surge – as well as food to food pantries.

Other than that, washing hands and maintaining social distancing is key, Levine said, contrary to President Trump’s suggestion yesterday that such measures could soon be relaxed.

“From a public health perspective, we would not pull back from restrictions at this time,” she said. “It is far too early to change those prevention and mitigation orders.”

In response to a question of whether or not the federal government could overrule state stay-at-home orders, Levine answered, “I’m not an attorney, so I’ll leave it to attorneys and other people to decide the federal-versus-state regulations. But we firmly believe in public health that social distancing is key and that’s why our request is that people please stay home.”

WHYY’s Laura Benshoff and Miles Bryan contributed reporting. 

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