Local experts weigh in on how COVID-19 will affect life through next spring
With 2020 dominated by a deadly, unpredictable virus that no one had even heard of a year ago, most of us would rather look forward now than back. Forward to the day when all children can go back to school, all workers can commute without fear, all businesses can open without masks, gloves and temperature checks. In short, the day we go back to normal.
But for at least the next half-year, experts agree, pandemic precautions will still be very much with us. To get expert perspectives on what lies ahead, Inquirer reporters spoke with:
A Philadelphia surgeon who quickly saw that some of the city’s most vulnerable residents could not get the coronavirus testing they needed, and did something about it.
A scientist whose team hopes to soon find better therapeutics to help the most desperately ill COVID-19 patients.
An intensive care physician who, having gotten the most desperately ill patients through the disease, now worries about the second wave.
A nursing leader who led the fight for adequate protective gear for front-line workers.
An environmental scientist who helped explain how the virus moves in the air — and who says what we all should be doing to protect ourselves.
Economic gains after coronavirus downturn went mostly to wealthy households, raising concerns about inequality
Americans' household wealth rebounded last quarter to a record high as the stock market quickly recovered from a pandemic-induced plunge in March. Yet the gains flowed mainly to the most affluent households even as tens of millions of people endured job losses and shrunken incomes.
The Federal Reserve said Monday that American households' net worth jumped nearly 7% in the April-June quarter to $119 trillion. That figure had sunk to $111.3 trillion in the first quarter, when the coronavirus battered the economy and sent stock prices tumbling.
Since then, the S&P 500 stock index has regained its record high before losing some ground this month. It was up 2.8% for this year as of Friday. The tech-heavy Nasdaq has soared more than 20% this year.
The full recovery of wealth even while the economy has regained only about half the jobs lost to the pandemic recession underscores what many economists see as America’s widening economic inequality.
Officials warn that ‘pandemic fatigue’ is setting in
New Jersey Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli warned that people may be suffering from “pandemic fatigue” from the months of dealing with the coronavirus outbreak. She urged those who are feeling weary, depressed or helpless to get more sleep, go for walks, eat healthy food, unplug from social media and connect with others in phone or video chats.
She mentioned a troubling rise in overdoses this year, noting a 12% increase in suspected drug related deaths from January to July 2020 when compared with the same timeframe in 2019. In May, the state saw the highest number of suspected drug-related deaths in any one-month period of time.
However, Persichilli said that wanting the pandemic to end is “different than willful ignorance of wearing a mask,” or those who choose to take risks because they think that they are not likely to come down with a serious case of the illness.
“As tired as we all are from battling the pandemic, we have to continue to take precautions,” she said. “Because this virus is still circulating, and we need to stay the course in this fight.”
New Jersey added 396 new cases, bringing the total to over 200,000. Officials reported two more deaths.
Gov. Phil Murphy will host a Facebook Live chat with infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci on Thursday at 11:15 a.m., he said.
Fashion District Philadelphia among local malls that will expand hours
Several local shopping malls, including Fashion District Philadelphia and the Cherry Hill Mall, will expand their hours next week as customers continue to return to stories amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
PREIT announced that all its malls will extend their hours on Friday and Saturday evenings to close at 8 p.m. beginning Friday, Oct. 2. The company also announced all of its properties will be closed this year on Thanksgiving Day.
“As consumer demands and priorities shift, we continue to be responsive and are grateful to the associates running our properties and the stores, entertainment venues and restaurants within them,” Chairman and CEO Joseph Coradino said in a statement.
Other malls that will see their hours explained include Moorestown Mall, Plymouth Meeting Mall, Exton Square Mall, Springfield Mall, Willow Grove Park Mall, and Cumberland Mall.
“A draft version of proposed changes to these recommendations was posted in error to the agency’s official website,” the CDC said in a statement. “CDC is currently updating its recommendations regarding airborne transmission of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19). Once this process has been completed, the update language will be posted.”
The CDC had quietly updated its official guidance to warn the “main way” the novel coronavirus spreads is through droplets and airborne particles, which the agency said “can remain suspended in the air and be breathed in by others.” As a result, the CDC warned that badly ventilated indoor spaces are particularly dangerous in terms of the spread of the virus.
Wolf touts Pa.'s positivity rate, PPE stockpile heading into fall
Gov. Tom Wolf on Monday had a hopeful message for Pennsylvanians, touting the commonwealth’s stockpile of personal protective equipment, the positivity rate of its coronavirus tests, the loosened regulations on restaurants, and the relatively low count of hospital beds currently occupied by patients stricken by a pandemic that has killed about 200,000 people nationwide.
“I think that’s the kind of thing we need to recognize,” the governor said of the commonwealth’s successes." The crude, broad-brush things we had to do to buy time back in March and April, we don’t have to do right now.“
Wolf said this was a testament to Pennsylvanians' compliance with coronavirus precautions, such as mask-wearing and social distancing. But he noted that the commonwealth was certainly not out of the woods yet, with temperatures dropping, flu season approaching, and some college students back on campuses, where outbreaks have occurred.
“Apparently students do today what they did when I was in college, they go to parties. Who knew?” he said with an exaggerated shrug. “So we have to make sure we’re doing everything we can to keep our students safe.”
Gov. Tom Wolf on Monday said he will veto a bill that would have given Pennsylvania schools the sole authority to determine whether to play sports, allow spectators at games, and hold in-person extracurricular activities for students.
“School districts are going to do what they do, but there’s a virus out there,” the governor said. “You ignore that at your peril. You could ignore reality, but that reality is the virus is out to get us."
“I don’t think Pennsylvanians can afford to ignore that reality,” he added, “so I’m going to veto it.”
The bill, introduced by Republican state Rep. Mike Reese from southwestern Pennsylvania, passed the House with a vote of 155-47, passed the Senate with a vote of 39-11, and landed on Wolf’s desk on Sept. 11. The assembly could override Wolf’s veto with a two-thirds majority in each body.
Here’s why coins have been hard to come by, and what Philly’s Mint is doing about it
At the Philadelphia Mint — the nation’s largest producer of coin currency — 14 presses, each producing 750 coins a minute, are running seven days a week to compensate for the pandemic-caused coin supply problems that turned quarters, nickels, and dimes into rare commodities.
The hardship caused by the coin scarcity is being disproportionately borne by people who are “elderly and poor, because that’s where most coins are being used,” said Subodha Kumar, a professor of marketing and supply-chain management at Temple’s Fox School of Business. “A lot of these impacts are similar to the impact of the cashless economy.”
The problem isn’t a lack of coins, the Federal Reserve said, but a lack of circulation.
When the pandemic shut down businesses and financial institutions, the normal exchange of coins seized up. Even since reopening, concerns about cash as a COVID-19 spreader caused some businesses to insist on card-only transactions, despite Philadelphia’s banning such restrictions.
The pandemic has also accelerated trends toward online shopping, Kumar said, where no coins change hands. The result: too much of the nation’s $48 billion in circulating coins is sitting stagnant.
“The nation’s coin is pooling in change jars, in car cup holders and in shuttered businesses,” according to a July statement from the U.S. Coin Task Force formed by the Federal Reserve.
Workers say they’re defenseless when customers don’t wear masks
When she was working as a cashier this summer at a Walmart store in Northeast Philadelphia, a 20-year-old woman said she would see customers wearing their masks under their chins or not wearing one at all, but “it didn’t make sense to make a whole big scene,” especially if the line at her register was long. She worried that her manager would get mad at her if she slowed down the line while dealing with maskless customers.
At a Rittenhouse Square Starbucks, a 24-year-old barista said that sometimes customers get belligerent when she asks them to put on a mask. They ask for her name and say they’ll file a complaint with corporate, before storming out. Add that to the list of other inconsiderate things customers do, she said, like stick their heads around the acrylic glass barrier that’s meant to protect both workers and customers.
“People act like our safety doesn’t matter,” said the barista, who, like most of the workers interviewed for this story, asked that her name not be used out of fear of retaliation at work.
As shutdown orders lift and businesses slowly reopen, low-wage service workers are once again at high risk of exposure to COVID-19 — and they have to deal with a whole range of customers, including those who believe it’s their constitutional right not to wear a mask.
“Notwithstanding that you’re a small state, but it should be the model of how you get to such a low test positivity, that you can actually start opening up the economy in a safe and prudent way,” Fauci said.
CDC says coronavirus can spread through the air, warns of badly ventilated spaces
For months, scientists and public health experts have warned of mounting evidence that the novel coronavirus is airborne, transmitted through tiny droplets called aerosols that linger in the air much longer than the larger globs that come from coughing or sneezing.
Now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agrees. The CDC recently changed its official guidance to note that aerosols are “thought to be the main way the virus spreads” and to warn that badly ventilated indoor spaces are particularly dangerous.
“There is growing evidence that droplets and airborne particles can remain suspended in the air and be breathed in by others, and travel distances beyond 6 feet (for example, during choir practice, in restaurants, or in fitness classes),” the agency stated. “In general, indoor environments without good ventilation increase this risk.”
While the CDC has not called for any new action to address the airborne threat of a virus that has now killed nearly 200,000 Americans, experts said the change should help to shift policy and public behavior.
“It’s a major change,” Jose-Luis Jimenez, a chemistry professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder who studies how aerosols spread the virus, told The Washington Post. “This is a good thing, if we can reduce transmission because more people understand how it is spreading and know what to do to stop it.”
Indoor dining expands in Pennsylvania, but not in Philly
Indoor dining expands to 50% capacity on Monday across Pennsylvania, with the exemption of Philadelphia, where capacity will remain at 25%.
Restaurants must self-certify that they are complying with the state’s coronavirus restrictions and safety precautions. Those that don’t follow the proper steps must remain at 25% capacity.
The order, signed by Gov. Tom Wolf on Thursday, requires restaurants to cut off alcohol sales for on-site consumption by 11 p.m. Customers have until midnight to finish their drinks, which much be served with a meal “prepared on the premises.”
In Philadelphia, the current restrictions on indoor dining will remain in place. Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said earlier this month the city would look into easing capacity requirements for restaurants sometime in October if the number of new cases of COVID-19 continue to decrease.
Bollendorf said the decision was due to recent coronavirus cases in the district and a large gathering of high school seniors over the weekend.
“Unfortunately, there is much evidence to show that neither social distancing nor face coverings were in place,” Bollendorf wrote in the letter. “We have multiple students that have been determined to be close contacts of the COVID-19 cases we are currently tracing, and now have a significant concern as to whether or not students were placed at risk during this function.”
In addition to the delay of in-person classes, Bollendorf said all athletics will be suspended until further notice.
Bill Gates said Trump’s partial travel bans likely ‘accelerated’ the pandemic
President Donald Trump has repeatedly touted his partial ban on travel from China early this year as a defense of his administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
But Microsoft founder and health philanthropist Bill Gates said the ban may have done the opposite by causing tens of thousands of American citizens and residents to rush back into the country without the means to properly test or quarantine them. Instead of preventing the virus from entering the country, Gates said the travel restrictions likely “seeded the disease here" and “accelerated” its growth.
“We didn’t have any community testing, we didn’t have the scale of testing … So that meant that March saw this incredible explosion — the West Coast coming from China and the East Coast coming out of Europe,” Gates said during an interview that aired Sunday on Fox News.