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When coronavirus and gun violence collide, it makes both more deadly | Editorial

The coronavirus pandemic has the potential to make gun violence more deadly with shooting victims competing for respirators and blood units with COVID-19 patients.

Penn residents run a simulation for a gunshot victim scenario in the trauma bay at the Penn Presbyterian Medical Center in Philadelphia, PA on Friday, July 26, 2019.
Penn residents run a simulation for a gunshot victim scenario in the trauma bay at the Penn Presbyterian Medical Center in Philadelphia, PA on Friday, July 26, 2019.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

The coronavirus pandemic is at present so monumental it has the ability to overshadow everything else — including pressing problems that already exist. In Philadelphia, that includes gun violence. According to data from the Philadelphia Police Department, in the four weeks ending March 22, almost all crime categories — including overall violent crime — saw large declines compared with the prior four weeks. An exception is shootings, which have risen 22%, to 106, in the last four weeks.

The bitter irony is that social distancing required by the coronavirus has the potential to make gun violence more deadly — not just because it limits violence interventions, but because it forces gun-wound victims to compete with COVID-19 patients for essential health services.

COVID-19 is imposing serious demands on units of blood, ventilators, and personal protective gear for health-care workers. Treating gun victims requires a lot of blood, a product in short supply due to canceled drives. Similarly, gun victims are at high risk of needing ventilators. Trauma surgeon Mark Seamon says that in his hospital, Penn Presbyterian, there are 5 to 15 gun-wound patients on ventilators at any given moment.

» READ MORE: Philadelphia area hospitals conserving blood amid nationwide donation shortfall

» READ MORE: Six health workers inside a Philly trauma bay share their most powerful memories of treating gun violence

Reaching the most at risk from a distance

Social distancing can prove problematic to Philadelphia’s gun violence prevention efforts. Since last June, Philadelphia’s Office of Violence Prevention has disbursed $1.7 million in grants to nearly 100 small community-based nonprofits. Grantees have been told to postpone their projects until further notice to allow them to comply with the city’s stay-at-home order, according to OVP. The city also deploys outreach workers to defuse conflict before it turns to violence. According to an OVP spokesperson, outreach “continues its work,” but the office could not provide specifics on how. Given the severity of the gun violence problem, the Kenney administration should be pressuring the OVP to adapt more quickly — and communicate more.

Meanwhile in Chicago, a city that successfully reduced shootings in recent years, gun violence prevention nonprofits are adapting to social distancing. The Institute for Nonviolence Chicago is continuing its outreach work but with new precautions. READI Chicago, which provides jobs and cognitive behavioral therapy, rapidly surveyed the tech capacity of participants and responded to their needs — including at times reimbursements for data plans — to move CBT sessions online.

» READ MORE: Important lessons for Philadelphia from Chicago’s three-year decline in gun violence | Editorial

In the coming months, as resources continue to get scarce, focusing efforts on those at risk for violence is going to be more important than ever. City and state officials should not pull the funding out from under the feet of one health crisis to address another. The coronavirus has forced all to make significant alterations in their lives; the city’s efforts at solving gun violence should be no exception.

Wolf’s gun store mistakes

Given the trends we are seeing in Philadelphia, there should be no question that Gov. Tom Wolf must shut down all gun stores. The news of the coronavirus led to a spree of gun purchases, including by first-time gun owners. On March 19, Wolf ordered all non-life-sustaining businesses to close, originally including gun stores. But on the following Tuesday, after pressure from state Supreme Court justices, Wolf reversed course, allowing gun stores to see customers by appointment. This strikes us as unnecessary and dangerous.

The case for closing gun stores is even more compelling considering that one crime category that could see an increase because of the coronavirus is domestic violence and child abuse, according to Loyola University New Orleans criminologist Kelly Frailing. People are trapped at home, together, during a very stressful and uncertain time. There are enough terrifying statistics showing that a gun in the home exponentially increases the risk of domestic killings and suicides — as well as accidental shootings. Guns also make for lucrative burglary opportunities. At this time, with high stress and kids out of school playing in the house all day, more than ever, we need fewer guns — not more.

Responding to all crises

If both gun violence and coronavirus continue at their current rates, both COVID-19 and shooting victims will not be able to receive the care they need and deserve. Increased wait times, lack of units of blood, and short supply of ventilators could turn nonfatal shootings into homicides. The greatest challenge at this moment, both for community and government, is to effectively respond to all health threats — especially those that can be just as deadly as the pandemic.