Philly sees ‘heartening’ downturn in new COVID cases, but is still planning for another potential surge

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The Philadelphia skyline. (Mark Henninger/Imagic Digital)

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Philadelphia could be seeing the downside of another COVID-19 wave as new cases have plateaued and are going down again, city health officials said Thursday.

The average new cases per day was 288 on Wednesday, down from a high of 307 last week, said Acting Health Commissioner Dr. Cheryl Bettigole.

“The percentage of tests that have been coming back positive are also coming down,” she said. “As recently as Aug. 23, 7% were positive. Yesterday, only 5% were positive.

“Things could change, but the numbers we are seeing this week are heartening, and we hope the trend continues,” Bettigole added.

However, the city is not taking the downturn in new infections lightly and is still planning for another potential surge in cases this fall as people go back to schools and workplaces in person.

Masks are still required at all Philadelphia businesses where there is not a vaccine mandate in place, and at all unseated outdoor events that draw over 1,000 people. The city is also considering whether to impose a mask mandate at outdoor sporting events, but Bettigole said no decision has been made at this time.

“One of the lessons of the pandemic so far is that we need to be prepared for anything, so we are planning for what to do if numbers surge again, so that we are ready,” she said. “At the same time, we don’t want to be more restrictive than we have to be.”

City data show a “sharp increase” in mask use and an increase in the rate of new people getting vaccinated, she said, noting the city still has a long way to go.

“My email inbox is full of notes by people disturbed by places they have been where people are not masking consistently, but the change is real, and it matters,” she said.

Contract tracing has shown that many infections come when people are at home when someone comes to visit and people let down their guard, take their masks off, or have a meal with someone they don’t live with, Bettigole said.

The city is also encouraging pregnant people to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Dr. Stacey Kallem, director of the city’s Maternal, Child, and Family Health Division, said she got the vaccine while pregnant because it helps mitigate the serious risks of getting the virus.

“Pregnant women with COVID-19 are more likely to be hospitalized, be admitted to the intensive care unit, need a ventilator, or even die if they get covid,” said Kallem. “A COVID infection during pregnancy is also a risk to the baby because of premature birth during an infection.”

So far, Bettigole said over one million residents have received at least one dose of the vaccine, more than two-thirds of adults in the city are fully vaccinated, and 80% of Philadelphia adults have at least one dose of vaccine.

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