The coronavirus benchmark that Pennsylvania officials released this week for when counties might be considered for reopening under Gov. Tom Wolf’s plan caused confusion across the region, with guidelines posted on the state website contradicting statements from state and local officials.
According to the website, Philadelphia would already have the case numbers needed to be considered for moving into the first phase of reopening. That prompted head-scratching, as officials said the hard-hit, population-dense city was “not close” to having a low-enough rate of infection, and Wolf said Southeastern Pennsylvania would likely be among the last areas in the state to reopen.
Officials clarified Friday that the benchmark refers to a cumulative case count over 14 days, not a daily case count, meaning Philadelphia has not reached the goal.
For all counties in the state, the governor’s plan stipulates that the rate of infection in a given area should be about 50 new cases per 100,000 people over 14 days for it to consider beginning the yellow phase of the reopening, when some businesses can call employees back to work, the state Department of Health confirmed Friday in response to questions from The Inquirer.
For Philadelphia, that translates to an average of 55 new coronavirus cases each day for 14 days — or a total of 790 new cases over a two-week period, according to calculations provided Friday by state and city health officials.
That means the city’s current rate of infection is about seven to eight times higher than the goal rate: In the 14-day period ending Thursday, the city had 5,955 new cases, an average of 425 per day.
Department of Health spokesperson Nate Wardle said Friday that the state website would be updated to reflect the correct benchmark wording. Health Secretary Rachel Levine described the benchmark correctly in her Thursday news briefing.
The governor’s spokesperson didn’t respond to questions about the discrepancy.
Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley spoke with Levine on Thursday evening to clarify the state’s calculation and confirmed that the guidance referred to a cumulative number of cases, not a daily number of cases, said city spokesperson Lauren Cox.
“That would work out to about 55 new cases per day in Philadelphia, which, as Dr. Farley has noted several times, we are nowhere near,” said Philadelphia Health Department spokesperson Jim Garrow.
Delaware County Council Member Kevin Madden said Friday his county was operating under the same understanding of the guidance and broke down the calculations.
“I know the math gets complicated for all of us,” he said. “In Delaware County terms, we have roughly 550,000 people. So 50 per 100,000 would mean about 275 for 550,000, and if you divide that by 14, that’s about 20 ... per day over a 14-day period. That is what that guidance really means.”
: Montgomery County currently has a “14-day number” that is substantially higher than the state’s target, County Commissioner Val Arkoosh said Friday.
The benchmark is one of several data points officials will consider in determining when an area is ready to reopen. Wardle said officials will also consider the number of available hospital beds, modeling data that will be developed by Carnegie Mellon University, and the amount of community testing available.
“If a region doesn’t have more than 50 cases per 100,000 people over 14 days, but the hospitals there are at or nearing capacity, we wouldn’t be able to reopen that region,” he said. “Doing so would put our entire health system at risk.”