Even as the COVID-19 pandemic hits its worst case surges in much of the nation, numbers of new infections have dropped slightly in Philadelphia and New Jersey.
Health officials expressed cautious optimism Tuesday that the small changes could mean the highly contagious omicron variant’s tidal wave could soon subside, though it was too soon to be certain.
“From the numbers I’m looking at right now, we may be at peak right now,” said Cheryl Bettigole, Philadelphia’s health commissioner, in a news conference Tuesday.
She added a caveat, though, saying there are signs that a case decline could also represent a slight lull on the path to an even bigger peak.
“It’s hard to know if that’s a little bump on the way up,” she said.
Philadelphia reported a seven-day average of 2,978 new cases per day Monday, a slight decline from 3,108 a day reported last week. The positivity rate among those tested is 31.5%, also a drop from last week. Christmas led to a significant number of infections, Bettigole said, but almost two weeks after the end of 2021, there haven’t been signs of another massive rise in cases, suggesting Philadelphians may have been more cautious in their New Year’s Eve celebrations.
Despite near-record hospitalization numbers, New Jersey has also seen a slight downturn in the number of new cases and the rate of transmission over the last four days.
”The rate of transmission has started to inch down,” Gov. Phil Murphy said. “God willing, that is the beginning of something, but I don’t know that we know enough to be able to state that.”
It’s also possible, state officials said, that it could be close to a month before there’s a more long-lasting downturn in cases. The latest modeling indicates that the peak could come as late as February, in which case New Jersey should expect 20,000 to 30,000 cases daily through the rest of the month, Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli said.
”Omicron is a funny variant that shoots way up and then, for example in South Africa, came down just as quickly,” she said. “We can only hope that occurs.”
As has been the case throughout the pandemic, hospitalizations and deaths lag behind new cases by several weeks. New Jersey is prepared for the number of people hospitalized with the virus to reach 8,000, which could occur sometime between the third week of January and the first week of February, Persichilli said the state’s modeling indicates. There were 6,291 hospitalized in the state as of Jan. 9.
Tuesday afternoon Murphy extended a public health emergency order set to expire Tuesday night, allowing him to keep in place a mask mandate for schools and day-care centers.
Whether the omicron wave has reached its worst or will continue to surge, the coming weeks will likely be challenging, health officials said, with closures, disruptions, and packed hospitals continuing to be the norm. Cases and hospitalizations in New Jersey and Pennsylvania have soared to their highest counts of the pandemic.
Deaths have not reached the same grim peaks, but they are increasing and will likely continue to rise even as case counts start declining. While omicron does appear to generally cause less severe illness than the delta variant, it can still make people seriously ill.
The unvaccinated continue to make up the majority of those hospitalized and dying, Bettigole said.
“I continue to strongly encourage every Philadelphian who has not been fully vaccinated and boosted to get their shots as soon as they possibly can,” she said.
Pennsylvania reported 7,439 people hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Jan. 9, according to the New York Times trackers. Cases and hospitalizations statewide continue climbing, and state health officials said the state’s peak is yet to come.
“We are anticipating that peak will happen roughly sometime in early February, maybe later depending on when the peak in cases happens,” acting Health Secretary Keara Klinepeter said in a statement Tuesday.
Delaware County’s case increase compared with a week ago is second only to Philadelphia’s in Pennsylvania, with that county averaging 447% more cases than last week. Hospitals there are at capacity, and some have had to divert patients who don’t need urgent care to other facilities.
In Philadelphia, almost 1,200 people with COVID-19 are hospitalized. So far, Bettigole said, the city’s hospitals have not had to turn patients away.
Philadelphia hospitals have said they are feeling pressured by the surge in cases but are managing. Staff illnesses are causing shortages at hospitals and testing sites, Bettigole said, and procedures that can be delayed are being put on hold.
Likewise, the city has seen more employees than usual, including police and firefighters, call out sick with COVID-19 infections.
“Everyone is having staffing issues right now,” Bettigole said. “We haven’t reached a crisis point with the city.”
Schools will continue to face a roller coaster, she said. Closing them preemptively districtwide to prevent the virus from spreading is too damaging to children, but that means staff calling out sick with COVID-19 will likely continue to cause individual schools to close.
“You can’t run a school if you don’t have staff,” she said. “I do think we’re going to be in a difficult place for the next couple weeks.”
As health officials recommend people use N95 or KN95 masks, which are more protective than cloth masks, Bettigole acknowledged how hard it is to find masks that fit children well. Parents’ best bet, she said, is to try different-sized masks, or masks with adjustable straps. It’s important the mask fits comfortably so a child isn’t readjusting it or pulling on it. Kids under 2, though, generally can’t be expected to keep a mask in place.
”We can’t put a mask on a baby,” she said, “so that means that everyone who’s around that baby needs to be as careful as possible.”
People around infants should be vaccinated and boosted, and parents should limit the number of people a baby is exposed to.
A testing site run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Southwest Philadelphia may soon be joined by another FEMA-run site elsewhere in the city in the coming weeks. The city is anticipating distributing home testing kits to residents, possibly as soon as next week, giving priority to those in greatest need.
The health commissioner sought to highlight reasons for optimism Tuesday, while acknowledging January will be difficult. Vaccine uptake has increased, with about 95% of adults having had a single shot and 78% fully vaccinated — defined as two Pfizer or Moderna shots, or one Johnson & Johnson shot. About 247,000 have had boosters, about 23% of those fully vaccinated. Vaccination rates among those 12 and older are similar to those for adults and 29% of 5- to 11-year-olds have had one dose.
Mask use in the city has increased as well, she said, and there is continued evidence that booster shots protect people from serious omicron infections.
“Let’s get through January together with walks outside with friends instead of indoor gatherings, with double masking or KN95 masks to protect us inside,” Bettigole said, “and with the knowledge we may be seeing the light at the end of the tunnel at last if we can continue to be careful a bit longer.”
Staff writer Melanie Burney contributed to this article.