Philly’s coronavirus response

Philly COVID positive rate worse than other big U.S. cities, cases surge past spring peak

As positivity spikes, hospitalizations grow and mask-wearing drops, Philadelphia is enacting new restrictions to send a message.

Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital

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If you find yourself somewhere in Philadelphia with other people around, it’s not a stretch to assume at least one of them has COVID.

The situation in Philly is worse than many other U.S. metros, which is why Mayor Jim Kenney and Health Commissioner Tom Farley announced new restrictions on Monday. These include the shutdown of indoor dining, the end of indoor activity at gyms, libraries, museums and theaters, reduced capacity at retail stores, and a not-enforceable ban on social gatherings with anyone outside your family. Find details here.

Potentially devastating to small businesses and their staffs unless some kind of new federal stimulus is passed, the new measures are intended to hold back the surge as much as possible until a vaccine is widely available.

New restrictions at the state level have not yet been publicly discussed in Pennsylvania, although they have been enacted in other jurisdictions around the country.

As much as anything, said James Garrow, spokesperson for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, the city’s new measures are intended to send the message that hey, this ish is serious.

“We worry that people are getting complacent; they see that everything is open and life is getting into a sort of new normal,” Garrow told Billy Penn. “By restricting activities the city will not only be shutting down potential routes of exposure, but will also demonstrate in a meaningful way that it’s not safe to be around others.”

New cases pass spring peak

As the bans come back down, more new cases have been recorded each day in Philadelphia over the past week than during the pandemic’s April peak.

Some of the November mountain of positives is attributable to increased testing. On average four times as many people get tested daily now compared to the spring. But not all of it.

Positivity spike matches May

The average positivity rate, aka the share of people who get tested and receive positive results, is approaching 13%. That’s nearly double what it was just two weeks ago on Halloween, and a rate not seen in the city since mid-May.

Other cities not as bad

What’s more, Philly’s rate of positives is much higher than many other major metros.

New York City residents and officials are currently wringing their hands over possibly hitting 3% positivity. D.C.’s positivity is hovering around 4%. Los Angeles is clocking 5%. Baltimore’s nearing 6% and Detroit is closing in on 9%.

Chicago, however, is experiencing what looks like an even worse surge right now, with the positivity rate topping 15%.

Hospitalizations on the rise

There have been advances in treatment, and the population getting infected now is younger than in the spring, but across the nation and in Philly, hospitalizations have started to trend up.

From the middle of August to the beginning of October, fewer than 10 people, on average, were admitted to Philadelphia hospitals with COVID each day. That number has since more than tripled, equaling the situation at the end of May.

Mask-wearing drops

What brought Philly back to the brink of danger? A combination of factors, health experts say, including November’s cooler, drier air that makes it easier for viruses of this type to spread (think flu season or winter colds).

Then there’s the increasingly lax attitude.

That folks have stopped taking as many precautions is starkly obvious in the health department’s mask-wearing data. The share of people observed wearing face coverings outside on city streets has dropped from above 80% at the end of August to 70% at the end of October.

What people do inside their own homes and workplaces is even more concerning to health officials.

Interviews conducted by Philly’s contact tracing corps have indicated a lot of the spread is coming from small social gatherings, things like watching the Eagles with friends or hosting your crew for brunch. And despite the growing chorus of doctors and epidemiologists advising against it, many people are still planning to spend the holidays with relatives.

Which is one reason for the coming restrictions, said Garrow, the health department spokesperson. “It’s a sign that this is serious and things are as dangerous as they were during the spring; that has been and will continue to be our message.”

Want some more? Explore other Philly’s coronavirus response stories.

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